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‘Hurricane Hazel’: political icon, 101, hired to run Canada’s largest airport – The Guardian

When Hazel McCallion retired in 2014 as the mayor of the Canadian city of Mississauga, she was 93.

But while most people her age typically retreat from the spotlight of public life, “Hurricane Hazel” has shown little interest in slowing down. At 101, she recently accepted an offer to extend her role as a director for the greater Toronto airport authority, a contract that will last three years.

Omar Alghabra, Canada’s transport minister, congratulated the centenarian, commending her four decades of community service and her future “overseeing and guiding Canada’s largest airport”.

The job extension was announced last week, less than a month after she renewed her role as special adviser to the University of Toronto Mississauga, with the school praising her “encyclopaedic knowledge of politics”.

Known for her blunt demeanour and pugilistic style of governing, McCallion has loomed large over Ontario civics for decades, despite her diminutive height. A school, library, parade and baseball team all bear her name. A light rail project dubbed the Hazel McCallion Line was announced in February.

“She looms very large in Ontario politics, far beyond what one would expect simply by reading the statutes about the powers of a mayor,” said Tom Urbaniak, a professor of political science at Cape Breton university and author of a book about McCallion. “One former premier remarked, ‘She’s the one politician in Ontario who scares the bejesus out of me.’ So whenever she wants to pronounce on an issue to this day – whenever she wants to wade into something – it gets noticed.”

Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, described McCallion as the “icon of Canada” at a celebration of her 100th birthday last year. “I love her, she’s a mentor and she’s taught me so much and she’s always there for everyone,” he said.

Ford arrived at the event wearing an Ontario Women’s Hockey Association jersey with the name “Hazel” on the back and the number 100 – a nod to her stint as a professional hockey player earlier in her life.

Born in Port Daniel, Quebec, in 1921, McCallion was the youngest of five children during the Depression. She later found work at an engineering firm in Montreal and played professional hockey, making C$5 per game – a figure worth nearly C$100 today.

The engineering firm relocated her to Toronto, where in middle age she developed a keen interest in local politics.

two women sit with masks on
The current mayor, Bonnie Crombie, right, sits with McCallion in December. Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

McCallion held various municipal roles before running for mayor of Mississauga in 1978 – defeating an incumbent who suggested during his campaign that her gender was a political weakness.

“She was a pragmatic populist and she has an incredible ability to feel the public pulse, even before the public feels it,” Urbaniak said. McCallion shopped at different grocery stores each week to better understand the frustrations of constituents. She would then carefully place those grievances into stump speeches. “That’s a knack that she never lost.”

McCallion stayed on as mayor for the next 36 years as the city grew from a patchwork of farmland west of Toronto into Canada’s seventh-largest city.

She finally stepped down in 2014 with her political instincts intact: she endorsed the eventual winners of Ontario’s two most recent provincial elections, as well as Justin Trudeau before his successful bid for prime minister in 2015.

Despite her influence, or because of it, McCallion has brushed up against allegations that she breached conflict of interest rules. In 1982, a court determined she had failed to abstain from council discussions over a planning decision in which she had an interest.

In 2009, she faced accusations that a proposed convention centre and luxury hotel would have benefited her son, whose company had a financial stake in the project worth millions.

A judge involved in the inquiry concluded her actions amounted to “real and apparent conflict of interest”. McCallion insisted she had done nothing wrong and the case was thrown out in 2013.

Urbaniak says he laughed when he heard that McCallion had renewed her contract with the region’s airport authority.

“She will stay active as long as she can,” he said. “But she was famously in a years-long running battle with the former head of the airport authority. He thought he would get the better of Hazel McCallion. And he didn’t.”