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Opening comments:  More at the end.

Another version of this article starts off as "
Mccallion's Finest Hours" (sic).

To the main Judicial Inquiry page - to the Hazel McCallion page.

Comments by others to this web-page - .

National Post - Nov. 12, 2009 - By Tom Urbaniak.

Tom Urbaniak: Mississauga Mayor was the public face of Canada’s largest evacuation

Mississauga’s big bang happened 30 years ago this week.  It changed that city permanently, and it made Mayor Hazel McCallion a national figure.  This largest-ever Canadian evacuation can still teach other jurisdictions about how to handle a crisis.

More than 200,000 people were ordered from their homes, starting on the night of Nov. 10, 1979.  The culprit was Canadian Pacific Train 54.  “This train with a cargo of dangerous goods, with some tank cars having plain bearings … with no hotbox detectors en route, proceeded [too fast] through one of Canada’s most populous urban areas,” Mr. Justice Samuel Grange would write after the fact.

The fireball that followed the derailment at the Mavis Road crossing could be seen from as far away as St. Catharines and Kingston.  The propane explosions were not the main concern.  Officials were worried about the escaping chlorine.

Peel Regional Police Chief Douglas Burrows soon started ordering people to leave -- first 6,000 residents, then 15,000.  Within 24 hours, a “central control group” was making the decisions.  Most of Mississauga and parts of Oakville and Etobicoke were on the move.

“Mississauga is closed until further notice,” Ms. McCallion declared.

No one was killed.  Had the derailment happened a few hundred metres east or west of the disaster site, it would have been a different story.  It occurred late on a Saturday night when most families were together.  Most evacuees did not actually require the emergency shelters:  they were able to stay with relatives or friends, or in hotels.  The city was lucky.

Ironically, in the weeks preceding the event Peel CAO Richard Frost had been writing internal memos concerned about the lack of clarity in the emergency-response plans.  But clarity is also a function of decisive leadership, a reassuring person rising to the occasion.  That happened in 1979.

Ms. McCallion arrived on the scene in the early morning of Nov. 11.  She stayed a week, until most of her residents were back home, and even badly twisted an ankle.

She knew something about dangerous goods, thanks to her past employment with the engineering firm Canadian Kellogg.  But she was smart enough to let competent managers, like Police Chief Burrows and Fire Chief Gordon Bentley, untangle the technical issues.

Above all, Ms. McCallion made herself the public face of the crisis.  She issued constant updates, always clear and coherent, never over-promising.  If the experts told her that the evacuees would need to be out for two more days, Ms. McCallion told her citizens to prepare for double that.  So effective and firm were the communications that only later was it realized that many of the “orders” were really actually voluntary.

She visited the shelters and gave pep talks about the spirit of her city.  She worked the phones with volunteer organizations, and she made very clear, in public and private, what precisely she wanted the federal and provincial governments to do.  She put them on the defensive by digging up old city council resolutions criticizing Ottawa and Queen’s Park for lax standards on dangerous goods.  The implication: you can redeem yourselves now by helping me!  She insisted that the central control group be kept small.  Other officials would be allowed in from time to time only to be briefed.

Ms. McCallion ignored jurisdictional boundaries. Few people knew that the formal head of the central control group was Roy McMurtry, the provincial minister responsible for emergency planning. Mr. McMurtry was a calm, experienced facilitator, who deserves more credit than history will give him for the smooth handling of the crisis.  If his had been a more abrasive personality, there would have been another kind of fiery crash, this one between the minister and the mayor.

Mr. McMurtry put up with Ms. McCallion’s insistence that she be the main conduit, if not the only conduit, of instructions to the public.  “I’ve got to appeal to my people as their leader,” she is recorded as saying in one of the meeting transcripts.  Another time, while the central control group was still meeting, Ms. McCallion slipped away to be with the media all by herself. Mr. McMurtry grumbled but let it pass.

The Mississauga train derailment was a particular kind of crisis, but some of its lessons are universal:  Make collegial decisions, but with a manageable group and a visible, energetic leader recognized by the people.  Symbolic, empathetic gestures count.  Keep the media fed, and be quotable.  Give civil society, not just bureaucrats, ways to help.

The risks to the political leader are many. But the pay-offs can be enormous. For Hazel McCallion, the fan mail hasn’t stopped since.  “You are the only mayor who seemed to care for your people,” one resident wrote.  It’s a perception, a trust, that has allowed the Mississauga mayor to survive policy errors and some personal missteps over the space of a generation.

• Tom Urbaniak is a political scientist at Cape Breton University and author of Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of
Mississauga (University of Toronto Press, 2009).

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