Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Review: Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga by Tom Urbaniak

Hazel McCallion is one of the most interesting figures in Canadian politics. Until 2014 she was the mayor of Mississauga and figure of legendary proportions. She was the mayor, uninterrupted, between 1978 and 2014 and retired in her nineties. Before that she was Mayor of Mississauga she was the last Mayor of Streetsville and has been a prominent figure in Mississauga area for years. Tom Urbaniak tackles a difficult challenge - deconstructing the leadership of Hazel McCallion and the history of Mississauga. Mississauga is as much a character of this book as McCallion herself. Mississauga was a repository for the second generation of suburban development. Communities linked along the Queen Elizabeth Expressway and 401 developed splinter neighbourhoods and now Mississauga is one of the largest cities in Canada with over 700000 residents. From suburban sprawl to edge city, from monoculture to multicultural the city has evolved tremendously, yet the whole time McCallion was there.

Urbaniak explores McCallion's life to seek out her leadership style. Hazel McCallion, born Journeaux, grew up in a small town in eastern Quebec. As impressive as McCallion's longevity her meteoric rise may surpass it. She graduated high school in Quebec City and went to secretarial school. She did quite well in the business work with Canadian Kellogg. Her role expanded dramatically during the war and she was responsible for overseeing massive operations. Here is likely where McCallion developed her business-oriented style.

She married her husband, Sam, and they settled in the growing Streetsville. This is when McCallion entered politics. The area was rife with political conflict. What is now Mississauga was quickly, but haphazardly, developing. Streetsville and Port Credit were under growing pressure from the Township of Toronto. Streetsville had a dynamic local political scene. McCallion and others were part of the "reformer" school who wanted to see municipal business professionalized and development slowed. This conflict is central to the story until the move towards amalgamation in 1974. McCallion as Mayor of Streetsville fought against amalgamation, but in 1978 was elected as the Mayor of Mississauga.

This is fundamental to Urbaniak's analysis. Urbaniak supposes the following; McCallion's career could only exist in a place like Mississauga. In Streetsville she was challenge by organized, influential activists and powerful constituencies. In Mississauga the slate was wiped clean. There was no substantial media investigating. The massive city and isolated communities had trouble organizing against Mayor McCallion. After only a few terms all forms of resistance evaporated. The Mississauga Council acted in a "business-like" fashion. Decisions were made behind closed door and the democracy and civic engagement of Mississauga atrophied. 

McCallion, according to Urbaniak, developed a very special type of machine. The constant growth of Mississauga provided a stream of revenue from development fees, and few controversies. Taxes stayed low and Mississauga is only now wrestling with problems of being a major urban centre. McCallion's model began to falter towards the end of her tenure. She learned that smart growth was required, but squandered her bully pulpit to change planning in Peel Region. Mississauga now enters the difficult and more contentious time of redevelopment and intensification which may have spawned constituency groups to resist McCallion's rule.

Tom Urbaniak paints a compelling portrait of Hazel McCallion. It is laced with meaningful criticism, but it also captures her overwhelming popularity. The chapters that details her handling of the train derailment disaster captures all of these aspects in one. McCallion viewed herself as a voice of the people and accountable ultimately to them. But like many populist leaders she used it as bludgeon to get her way. Now that McCallion's term has ended I would love to see an update to this book. It was published in 2009 and would be interesting to discuss the final years and give more perspective on her legacy.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was that it put in context much of the history of Peel. Urbaniak takes pains to lay out the context of what was happening in Peel in the twentieth century. I found it a valuable explanation of how my home region came to be the way it is. Moreover the figure of Hazel McCallion is, if Urbaniak is correct, unlikely to be seen in this part of the province ever again. The political landscape has changed and the conflagration of circumstances that allowed McCallion to be the mayor for over forty years would be very difficult to repeat in part due to circumstances and in part due to her unique character.

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