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Hazel McCallion, Chief Elder Officer, Revera

Interview with Hazel McCallion

Thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic

Revera’s Chief Elder Officer, Hazel McCallion, in her 99 years has a wealth of experience to draw from. From a career in the private sector and her service as mayor of Mississauga for 36 years, Hazel has seen and done just about all there is. However, nothing she has seen or experienced has prepared her for the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has brought the world to a standstill. We asked Hazel to share her thoughts on life during the pandemic, on how governments and business leaders pressed pause on life as we know it, and on what the new normal will look like once the lockdowns end.

These are Hazel’s thoughts on the pandemic and how to change the world for the better.

Q. Have you ever experienced anything like the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in your life?

I’ve been through the Depression, a World War, rations, a number of economic recessions, SARS and more. This is the worst. 

“The greatest tragedy of this whole situation would be if at the end of it we go back to making the same mistakes we did before.”
Q. How are you keeping busy during the lockdown?

I tell you, my house has never been this clean! I’m doing a lot of gardening, getting all of my pots ready to grow vegetables this year. The trees are trimmed, and the flower beds are all edged.

I also have a 13-year-old German shepherd named Missy who I take for a walk every morning and evening. She’s still chasing rabbits around the yard so she’s doing pretty well for an old girl, even though she has arthritis.

I just have to keep busy because I get bored sitting around in my house.

Q. Have you found any new hobbies to keep your mind active?

I’ve been sorting through decades of photographs, news clippings and my files from my time as mayor and my involvement with different organizations. It’s interesting you know, going through things from the past and almost rediscovering the things you’ve done. Like the other day I was looking through some photographs from one of the times I met Queen Elizabeth.

I’ve also started reading. I’ve collected a library’s worth of books over the years from gifts people have given me. I’ve never had time to sit down and read them all so now I’m finally getting to do that.

Q. Have you been reflecting on the things that you’re grateful for?

Oh yes. In going through all of my photographs I’ve found lots of pictures of my two sons and daughter and my grandchild. I’ve been sharing those with them so it’s been nice to relive these moments with them.

One thing this pandemic has done is it has forced a slowness in my life. I don’t think I’ve stopped for one minute in the past 50 years, but now I’m stopping to smell the roses a bit more than I used to. I think if anything, this situation will help us to appreciate that life doesn’t have to be as fast as it used to be.

Q. What would you like to say to the workers on the frontline of this pandemic, especially those working in Long Term Care homes and Retirement residences?

These people are true heroes. This word is getting thrown around a lot right now, but it’s true. I have such admiration for those who get up in the morning and go to work knowing they could potentially be exposed to this virus.

I try to put myself in other people’s shoes and I see how dedicated and committed they are. I’ve been in many of Revera’s homes and residences and I’m always so proud of the workers because they help people. Some of these employees have been there for 30 or more years. People like that don’t do that for a pay cheque, they do it because they love their job and the people they’re serving.

I’m impressed by the salutes that the communities are doing for them. I mean, they’ve always been heroes, it’s just now others are finally realizing it.

Q. From your time as mayor, was there any crisis that you faced that would compare to COVID-19?

The biggest crisis we faced was in 1979 when the CP train derailed in Mississauga and we had to evacuate 200,000 people from their homes. The population was about 300,000 at that time and it was a testament to the emergency responders that we didn’t have a single death. That wasn’t a lockdown like we have now, it was a complete close down.

This train was carrying very dangerous chemicals and explosives and there was huge concern for the health and safety of all the residents. It was a massive undertaking to evacuate the city but we did it.

Now that doesn’t compare to the scale of this virus, but I think one of the lessons learned from the derailment is that there are good things that come out of a situation like that. After that derailment, legislation was instituted that changed how hazardous materials could be transported. I think there will be changes that will help protect people in the future because of this pandemic.

Q. How do you think things will change?

The lockdown is tough on people who can’t get out and do the things they are accustomed to. I think it’s having a negative effect on some people, but others are rethinking the way they operate.

You have to manage your life. I’ve changed the way I do things, because it’s not a normal day anymore. You have to accept that and say, “well, I have to change my thinking.”

Q. What advice do you have for governments or businesses?

There are many questions that need to be asked going forward. What is the future? How can we operate differently? What measures can we take to be more prepared?

This isn’t the only virus that could upend our whole world and we have to review the entire operation to learn how improvements can be made. Governments have to review their operations as does the private sector, and even individuals.

This virus is a rude awakening for everyone, and I think we need to evaluate how we value what’s important. For example, doing what’s needed to make sure families can put food on the table and using technology for governments to be more accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving.

We’re in a state of incredible change right now and I don’t want to come out worse than we were before. The greatest tragedy of this whole situation would be if at the end of it we go back to making the same mistakes we did before.

Q. What are you most looking forward to after the pandemic ends?

Getting back out with people. Seeing people face-to-face again. I miss being out with people. I’ve been active my whole life in the community and I miss seeing my friends and people at the various organizations I work for.

I tell you, I’m going to be wandering around a lot when this is all over.