‘I was being me’: Mississauga waited a long time for a leader like Bonnie Crombie to push it away from its stifling past
(Feature image from X) 

‘I was being me’: Mississauga waited a long time for a leader like Bonnie Crombie to push it away from its stifling past

Ten years ago, the election of Bonnie Crombie as mayor of Mississauga redeemed the city’s leadership. The unbending style of Hazel McCallion had for decades created a worsening mismatch between the old stock local ruling class and the emergence of one of Canada’s most diverse, dynamic municipalities.

Two ugly episodes put those who clung to the past on notice—the new mayor, after 36 years of institutional loyalty to her predecessor, would finally modernize Mississauga. 

Crombie had the same bold swagger that defined the new Mississauga. And it was about to be unbottled.

“I think everyone realized Mississauga needed to grow and needed to change,” she tells The Pointer, a day before officially stepping down as mayor to lead the Ontario Liberal Party. 

In September of 2015, after the recently elected mayor—as colourful as her city—had spent a few months scanning the political landscape from her new perch atop the municipal government, City Hall’s legislative chamber was filled for what was usually the routine Monday evening planning meeting. Crombie sat in the middle of the concave dais flanked by eleven councillors at the front of the cavernous chamber. 

The item on the agenda that had packed the gallery with Mississauga residents detailed the proposed construction of a two-storey Mosque near the city’s northwest corner, in an area known as Meadowvale which had undergone rapid demographic change, like much of the rest of Mississauga, over the previous two decades. Pockets of diverse Muslim neighbourhoods had redefined the community, which was previously Christian, and white. 


Bonnie Crombie, pictured in 2023, was first elected as mayor of Mississauga in 2014 following Hazel McCallion’s retirement. Before that, she served as councillor for Ward 5 after being elected in a byelection in 2011, and as a Mississauga Liberal MP from 2008 to 2011.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


Crombie was committed to the Mosque and had already made her position clear in the face of a growing campaign headed by a man named Kevin Johnston. The stalky, spikey-haired Islamophobe represented attitudes that had for decades been commonplace across Mississauga, where the KKK had once enjoyed a foothold and where local resident Paul Fromm, perhaps Canada’s most notorious white supremacist, taught in the city’s public school board for two decades while openly promoting racist ideologies such as the creation of a “supreme race” as part of his mainstream political activity in the city—he was elected in 1981 as a Progressive Conservative Party of Canada treasurer overseeing Mississauga’s riding associations.

The city’s demographics were beginning to shift, as waves of residents from countries like India, China and Jamaica were drawn to the inexpensive homes that offered families plenty of space to settle and grow.

Mississauga’s institutional leadership, which did not reflect the immigrant energy transforming the city, was defined by a status quo mindset. Old ways of doing things, which continued to benefit those in power, and the attitudes of the past were fiercely protected. After teaching at Mississauga’s Applewood Heights Secondary School starting in 1973, Fromm remained with the Peel District School Board until 1997, before he was finally dismissed by a leadership that for decades had made excuses whenever calls for his removal mounted among the increasingly diverse school community.

Sikh students and their families faced widespread hostility from political leaders, those who ran the city’s education boards and other decision makers who fought to prevent their own residents from enjoying religious freedoms widely practiced in other parts of the country. In the face of rabid opposition (the PDSB tried unsuccessfully to use Ontario’s courts to appeal a Human Rights Commission decision that upheld the rights of Sikh students) veteran Mississauga politician Carolyn Parrish was one of the first leaders, while serving on the PDSB board as a trustee, who pushed back against the status quo, championing the religious rights of Sikh students in Mississauga. For her efforts, other trustees on the board voted her out as chair.

As more tensions emerged across the city, those in positions of power held on tightly to a past that was disappearing. 

Crombie says it was clear that leadership had to change and “the next generation” would have to do it.       

When she became mayor, Johnston’s frequent anti-muslim rants were an embarrasing representation of the city, with social media amplifying his videos and hate speech. There was no effective push back.

Then, on that Monday evening in September of 2015, the change that had been stifled for decades, took the shape of an iron fist.

Johnston finally faced a person in a position of power who refused to let him get away with his fear mongering. 

He had arrived with dozens of his vocal supporters who opposed the construction of the Mosque, and spoke before council about many of his so-called concerns, highlighting unfounded parking and traffic issues. After addressing elected members sitting directly in front of him, he walked away from the lectern and took his seat in the gallery.

“Mr. Johnston, I wonder if you might come back, please,” Crombie calmly requested.

She then held up pages printed from Johnston’s website filled with hate speech against Muslims and the words “Stop the Mosque” emblazoned at the top.

“There are a few concerns that you didn’t raise tonight that are on your website,” Crombie said, sitting in the centre of the row of council members, from her raised platform looking out to the gallery glaring directly at Mississauga’s most notorious racist, who publicized his hate with impunity. “Concerns about vandalism and crime in the area, loss of freedom of speech…massive increase in the number of sexual assaults and rapes that will happen in parks and on streets. Is this what you believe?” she said, her voice rising.  

“It’s what I believe,” Johnston, who had spread the remarks online and in flyers distributed widely across the city, replied.

"Residents, is this what you believe in, is this what you've been applauding for?" Crombie said, confronting the men and women in the public gallery who had clapped and cheered loudly when Johnston spoke. 

"This is heinous,” Crombie thundered back. “This is hate-mongering Mr. Johnston…You should be ashamed of yourself."

Many in the chamber, including those who claimed the Mosque would cause too much traffic and would violate parking bylaws, were stunned. 

After she shut down the opposition, for good, Crombie later told reporters, “As mayor, you have to demonstrate leadership. It’s my responsibility that this doesn’t go unaddressed.”

Johnston later attacked her online, claiming she was trying to convert the city to Islam, suggesting she wanted to cause harm, prompting the mayor to file a police complaint. Soon after, he left Mississauga and a few years later was sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating a judge’s order in a hate speech case against him.

“I was being me,” Crombie tells The Pointer. “I always believed in doing the right thing for the right reason. I was always going to stand up for the Mosque. They purchased the land, it was zoned religious. There was no doubt in my mind that was the appropriate location for that Mosque. There are always challenges with parking and traffic, no matter where you put any form of religious organization.” 

As she pointed out all those years ago, the same accommodations were routinely made for churches, how could they not be made for a Mosque.

Mississauga would never be the same. There would finally be consequences for people and institutions that did harm to those who represented the demographic shift they tried to deny.  

Crombie’s openness to the benefits of pluralism was shaped by her early experiences in life. Her parents arrived from Poland in the ‘50s and settled in Toronto where Crombie was born in 1960, coming of age while old Upper Canada attitudes were being washed over by waves of immigrants and a broad post-war international shift toward globalism. Free markets and open borders slowly replaced the isolated views of old stock Canadians hanging onto a bygone era, afraid of change and those who embodied it. 

Mississauga's Celebration Square packed for Canada Day fireworks. The city has transformed dramatically from a collection of isolated subdivisions and a homogenous population, to one of the most dynamic and diverse municipalities in Canada.

(City of Mississauga)


Crombie says she appreciates the tireless work of people like Hazel McCallion, who contributed profoundly to the establishment of Mississauga. 

“I love what Hazel had created,” she says. “But at the same time, Hazel knew when she retired that the city needed to change, and it was up to the next generation.”

She earned a political science degree specializing in international relations before getting an MBA and was partly educated abroad. She worked for Fortune 500 corporations including the Walt Disney Company and McDonald’s Canada as a public affairs consultant, which would later serve her well in the political arena where she has always displayed a comfort in front of audiences. But her public persona, as a polished popular leader who looks good in front of cameras, does not tell the story of her battles. 

When she became mayor another issue dominated headlines. 

Police carding had first been highlighted by Black communities across the GTA, particularly in Toronto, more than a decade earlier. While local leaders in the neighbouring city had for years raised the issue and begun reforming Toronto Police’s practices around the unlawful, racially motivated detentions, a harmful procedure that had done irreparable damage to generations of young Black men, carding continued in Mississauga with impunity, under a powerful police chief…who was about to finally meet her match. 

A media story that same September included data obtained from Peel Police through access to information laws. It revealed Black residents in Mississauga were being targeted in police carding stops, mostly at random and in violation of their Charter rights, at more than three times the rate compared to the city’s white residents.

Alarming stories had come forward about Mississauga fathers being unlawfully detained by Peel police while out for a walk with their children, and teenagers being randomly pulled over and intimidated to give up personal identifying information, with no justification. 

Leaders who oversaw the police force as part of the board that governs the department had ignored the carding issue for years, despite widespread attention to the destructive practice in other parts of the province. Mayors like Brampton’s Susan Fennell, and their surrogates who had rotated in and out of the Peel Police Board for decades, turned a blind eye to a practice that was doing increasing harm to their residents, supporting powerful police leaders who in turn rallied around loyal politicians at election time. 

The same week the carding data from Peel Police was published in the Toronto Star, Crombie attended one of her first meetings as a member of the Peel Police Services Board. 

Controversial chief Jennifer Evans was an outspoken defender of carding and had not faced any scrutiny from members of the police board over the practice of racially targeted random stops or other problems stemming from the force’s failure to reflect the communities it served, as it remained overwhelmingly white despite a growing majority of residents who were not. 

Earlier in 2015, shortly after joining the police board, Crombie had asked for a full review of the force’s carding practices but the report Evans eventually produced was far from an accurate picture, with race data missing, incomplete work to crunch available carding statistics and only a broad “overview” of the practice, instead of the comprehensive examination the new Mississauga mayor had asked for. 

She had previously served a partial term as the Ward 5 councillor, after winning a by-election in 2011, representing the area of Malton, the most diverse part of the city which had undergone a dramatic demographic shift over the previous two decades. 

By the time she was mayor, Crombie had for a few years been hearing about carding in her community, but unlike other leaders who had routinely been approached about the harmful, discriminatory practice, she listened. 

Policing data in other jurisdictions like Toronto had shown Black individuals were being targeted and stopped by police in carding encounters at alarming rates, for decades, with some residents pulled over dozens even hundreds of times.  

“When we were having these discussions initially about carding and street checks, [Evans] tried to persuade me that street checks were different from carding, but I didn't see the difference,” Crombie says, pointing out that street checks were the exact same practice as carding, but Evans thought that by using a different term she could avoid scrutiny. 

The more she heard from residents, directly, Crombie felt compelled to take action. 

“Everybody should have the same equal opportunity,” she says, and that includes the right to live your day-to-day life free from the fear of being constantly pulled over and detained by police for no reason.

She had one-on-one discussions with Black advocates, including author Desmond Cole, who detailed their interactions with police.  

“This was his lived experience that was not mine. It moved me that we could live in the same city and have the same education and have such different experiences.”


Bonnie Crombie at a Peel Police Services Board meeting in 2019, after she demanded an end to the practice of police carding.

(The Pointer files)


Armed with the scathing just published data Peel Police was forced to produce under a freedom of information investigation, Crombie sat down at the board meeting on September 25, 2015, just days after cutting down a notorious Islamophobe in her city. 

Her eyes were set on Evans, who could no longer hide behind shoddy, misleading reports. 

“Stopping citizens without an objective and reasonable basis for believing that they may be implicated in a recent or ongoing criminal offence, or where there are no reasonable and probable grounds to arrest them, is unconstitutional—it’s a form of arbitrary detention contrary to Section 9 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” she said, staring right at Evans.

The chief, whose face would go red whenever she was confronted by the media, became brightly flushed. Board meetings were usually brief and featured little more than a cursory review of agendas directed by police leaders accustomed to presenting updates with little to no response from Peel’s board members. But Evans was no match for the new Mississauga mayor who demanded the end of carding.

She put forward a motion the same day that described carding as unethical for “unfairly targeting ethnic minority communities” and called it unconstitutional. “The Ontario Human Rights Commission has called for an immediate end to the practice of carding,” her motion directing the chief to take similar action declared. 

Within months, random stops by Peel police officers were effectively ended. Crombie then pushed for a comprehensive equity and inclusion audit of the force to find out why it failed to hire from the community’s diverse populations and to force sweeping changes. Evans tried to fight the mayor, but it was clear Crombie and other members of the police board who came onside, were not interested in working with a leader resistant to change. 

“I guess because I was that younger generation, that I saw things differently, and also the demographics of Mississauga were changing,” she says.

The discredited chief eventually retired early, and Crombie led a push that resulted in the hiring of Peel Police’s first racialized leader, Nishan Duraiappah, whom she said had the experience to “modernize the force” and “lead it into the future”. She later welcomed a partnership between the Ontario Human Rights Commission and Peel Police to ensure problems around racial discrimination and hiring that did not reflect Mississauga would be overcome. 

In less than a year, Crombie had shut down a growing Islamophobic movement to prevent the construction of a Mosque—she oversaw its approval with the support of all but one of her council colleagues—and put an end to the racist practice of police carding which had caused generational damage to Mississauga’s Black communities.

She also called for the creation of Mississauga’s first Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, to help avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

“I wanted to ensure that we had a lens on the diverse communities because council didn't reflect…Mississauga. We didn't appear the same,” she says, acknowledging that in a city where more than half the residents were non-white, every single member of council when she became mayor was white. “And I'm very proud that today, the new council is a lot younger and a lot more diverse, and it's changed a lot.”

“Change is never easy. Change is difficult for people and we’ve seen growing pains and we've tried to be progressive and adopt change. But I'm confident even after I leave, we will continue to do so.” 

A big part of the change Crombie was determined to lead was erasing Mississauga’s reputation as a “sleepy suburb”. It was a description often used by people in Toronto, either too lazy to find out what the massive municipality to the west was becoming or too insecure to compare Hogtown’s predictable storylines with Mississauga’s undeniable energy, which was shaping a growing independence and indifference to the places surrounding it. 

Under McCallion, Mississauga’s finances were aligned with a suburban growth mandate. Taxes were kept flat with decades of zero percent increases that starved the city of urban features such as transit and dense housing. Instead, money that poured in from builders through construction fees, knows as development charges, was relied on to create the type of sprawling subdivision infrastructure Crombie, who grew up in Toronto and Etobicoke, bristled at.

“It struck me that you had to get into a car in Mississauga to do your evening shopping, and I thought that what we need is a more livable, walkable city,” she says. “One with more density.”

Though the tax increases she introduced were not popular with residents who expected to get all their services and necessary infrastructure enhancements without having to keep up with inflation or the needs of a booming city, McCallion’s questionable approach quickly gave way to Crombie’s city building. 

Transit investments were rapidly expanded, new developments featured gentle density to support the growth of complete communities, more investments were made to support post-secondary education and Crombie, with the help of progressive councillors, pursued the types of modern private-sector investments that help big cities attract cosmopolitan residents. Television and film production studios, financial sector companies and IT businesses were drawn to Mississauga using incentives and the highly educated local workforce to attract them. Crombie says Mississauga was no longer going to be a bedroom community—the city is now a net importer of employees, and its iconic Marilyn Monroe Towers were featured on the cover of the Toronto Region Board of Trade's marketing material.



Bonnie Crombie, in red, helped attract urban industries such as television and film studios to Mississauga.



She says transitioning from the city’s suburban past was the right vision to help fulfill the aspirations of Mississauga’s younger generations.

“People want to be near people, people want to sit on their porch and watch people walk by, want to walk their dog at night and wave at their neighbours. People want to be able to buy a jug of milk at the corner store and that just wasn't the case in Mississauga because of the design,” she says. “People want more density. They want to live near their neighbours and we need to accommodate more growth and more housing [in that model].”

“So it struck me that we needed to build an all inclusive community, a complete community. So when we were designing zoning like Lakeview, Brightwater, even the Ninth Line lands, we were talking about complete communities.”

Renderings of the massive Lakeview Village community being developed along Mississauga’s eastern lakefront, as part of Bonnie Crombie’s push for complete communities.

(My Lakeview Village)


Opportunities for density around transit, along with the vision for complete, livable, walkable communities with public amenities, while revitalizing languishing former industrial sites shaped Crombie’s policies as she focused on building complete communities, instead of the isolating subdivisions, with row after row of cookie cutter houses, constructed before her time.

“People want to live and work in the same community and be able to walk everywhere. And that's what makes healthy neighborhoods too. The emphasis should be on sustainability, but also building up healthy neighborhoods.”

With the city built out to its urban boundary, any new developments that come out of the City’s planning committee will continue to be townhomes, stacked townhomes or multi-unit residential, Crombie explains, and that unlike the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Mississauga won't pursue large, single family detached homes. “It doesn't make financial sense anymore to develop that way.” 

“These are the kinds of progressive changes we needed to make Mississauga [a modern city] as well as adopting general density right into our housing format. We have middle income housing that needs to be implemented to ensure that middle income earners have housing that's suitable.”


Bonnie Crombie’s tenure as mayor transformed Mississauga, where high rise development plans are being balanced with “missing middle” complete communities serviced by transit.

(Top: Photo of Mississauga’s city centre which now features a mix of medium and highrise residential buildings/Alexis Wright-The Pointer; Middle: Rendering of future Square One Shopping precinct/Oxford Properties; Bottom: Photo of Port Credit waterfront/The Pointer files) 



In October she exercised her strong mayor powers to override a council decision that denied allowing four-plexes in neighbourhoods “as of right” across Mississauga. The bold step, which angered subdivision developers and some builders hoping to fulfill the city’s residential growth targets with mismatched housing stock, was necessary to ensure the right “supply of housing and [provide] greater opportunity for those who want to live in our city.” The move was aimed at building the “missing middle” and combatting the housing affordability crisis.  

“I thought the one thing I wanted to accomplish [on the housing file] while being mayor was to ensure that we were a livable, walkable city, a complete city… and we have,” she says. “We have embraced change.” Her push has come with some opposition from older residents who have repeatedly voiced their frustration over plans they feel will alter Mississauga’s “character”, a mindset Crombie understands, but does not agree with.


As she leaves municipal politics, Bonnie Crombie will lead the Ontario Liberal Party.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


In December, Crombie won the Ontario Liberal Party leadership race — Friday was her last official day serving as Mississauga’s head of council.

Sitting before City staff and elected members who had worked with her over the years, on Wednesday Crombie addressed those gathered in the council chamber, describing her time as mayor of Mississauga as “the experience of a lifetime.”

“It’s an honour of a lifetime and I’ll never forget it. It’s been an incredible run.”

She tells The Pointer she is confident the current slate of councillors, who are younger and more diverse than ever, will continue to shape a city that is “progressive, vibrant, urban but welcoming”, an “inclusive city that's built on foundations of mutual respect and the equal opportunity of everyone to succeed.” 

The changes she brought to Mississauga, she says, have prepared her well for her new role, as she vies to become Ontario’s next premier and move the province into the future.

“I hope that I can continue the work I'm doing for Mississauga, but on a greater stage, on a bigger stage, where I can help in a different way, but hopefully in a more impactful way. I will miss it, of course. But at the same time, I know that I'll always be connected.”

She says being leader of the province's Liberal party will not be much different, fundamentally, with the same basic question about her constituents that she asks herself every morning: “What more can I do to make their lives better?”

“That will always be forefront in my mind.”


Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @mcpaigepeacock

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