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After a couple dozen Governors General, spanning over 100 years, we have finally reached the point where Canada made the step to have its first female Governor General and that woman was someone who broke a lot of barriers in her career, Jeanne Sauvé.
Born Jeanne-Mathilde Benoit on April 26, 1922 in Saskatchewan, where her father was building churches, nunneries and private homes. She would move with her family to Ottawa in 1926 where her father worked as a contractor.
From a young age, her father instilled in her the belief that she could rise to great heights. He would take her to Parliament Hill and show her the bust of Agnes Macphail, the first female Member of Parliament. He would say to her quote:
“You could become a member of Parliament some day if you wanted to.”
After attending school in Ottawa, where she was the head of her class, she would go on to study at the University of Ottawa.
Sauvé said quote:
“I was always the top of my class. The truth is I do not ever remember being second.”
She took classes at night, and worked as a government translator by day to pay for her schooling.
In 1942, she became the president of the Young Catholic Students Group, which required her to move from Ottawa to Montreal. She would stay with the organization until 1947.
Moving to Montreal was something Sauvé loved, which gave her the opportunity to use her native language. She would say quote:
“It was like freedom to me. Movies in French, my language spoken everywhere, no more feelings of rejection. I felt though I had come home.”
In 1947, she would marry her husband Maurice and they would move to London where he attended the London School of Economics. While there, she would teach and tutor part-time. In 1949, they moved to Paris so he could get his doctorate, and Sauvé worked in Paris as the director of the Youth Secretariat at UNESCO. While there, she also earned a degree in French civilization.
The couple returned back to Canada in 1952 and Sauvé began to work as a journalist and broadcaster for CBC and Radio-Canada. She would also do work for CTV, various American networks and several newspapers.
Her first radio programme, Femina, was a large success and would lead to her move to CBC television.
Unusual for the time, she would cover politics, typically reserved for men at the time, and in that capacity she would interview former prime minister Louis St. Laurent.
In 1959, she and her husband had their only child, Jean-Francois.
As a journalist, she would create Opinions, a half-hour youth panel that discussed controversial topics of the day including teenage sex, parental authority and student discipline.
Charles Lynch said years later quote:
“As a journalist, she was one of the best in the country. She was so alive.”
The fact that her husband was a Liberal Member of Parliament that worried some, but she remained impartial throughout her journalism career with CBC.
In 1964, Sauvé became the first woman elected as president of I’Institut Canadien des Affaires Publiques, which was a think tank that held annual conferences.
An advocate for young people travelling the world, she would say in 1980 quote:
“We were all convinced that if young people were just given a chance to communicate with other young people, east and west, Catholic and Protestant, French and English, the problems that arise from fear and a sense of foreignness would quickly be eliminated.”
In 1970, she would speak out in support of Prime Minister Trudeau and his invoking of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis. This would raise her profile in the Liberal Party, and move her towards her eventual political destiny.
In 1972, she ended her journalism career to take things to the next level with a career in politics.
With a strong following because of her journalism career, the Liberal Party approached her to run in Montreal for Parliament. While she was at home as a journalist, she found campaigning to be something she was not used to and the questions she was asked to be sexist. She would say quote:
“I felt uneasy for the first time in my life when I was campaigning. I felt people were taking a second look at me and wondering whether a woman was adequate for the job. They wondered what would happen to my husband and my son. I must say I had qualms about it myself.”
She would win her riding, and begin her career in Parliament. The Globe and Mail wrote quote:
“Not since Pierre Trudeau, Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier in 1965 have Quebec voters sent Ottawa new Liberal Member of Parliament with as much celebrity status as Jeanne Sauvé.”
She would be appointed as the Minister of State for Science and Technology, becoming the first woman from Quebec to hold a federal cabinet post.
In 1974, after another election win, she was named the Minister of the Environment. Her main goal in that portfolio was to deal with the rising pollution found in the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as the dangers of PCBs.
One year later, she was made the Minister of Communications, as well as the Secretary of State for External Affairs.
After the Liberals came back into power after a short stint in the Opposition from 1979 to 1980, Sauvé was asked by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to become the Speaker of the House of Commons. She would accept, and became the first female speaker in history. She chose to take the Speaker’s job over a cabinet post as she felt quote:
“it might not have gone to a woman and that breakthrough would have been delayed.”
Many applauded the decision, not just because it was felt it was time for a woman to take the post, but because Sauvé was known to be a good public speaker, had the right temperament for the job and was not overly partisan.
At the same time, Quebec was going through a referendum on independence and Sauvé wanted to campaign for national unity, something she couldn’t do as the neutral Speaker of the House. Trudeau, and other party leaders, agreed that the issue was too serious to not let her campaign on and she was allowed to take a public stand on sovereignty.
On April 14, 1980, she became Speaker of the House of Commons, and was also the first non-lawyer to have the role.
She would say of taking on the position quote:
“I feel absolutely great. The job is fantastic.”
At first, she had difficult with the position, often getting the names of MPs and their ridings wrong. She also had to have the chair replaced so her feet would touch the ground. At one point, she called Trudeau the Leader of the Opposition, which was quite funny for the gathered House. While that was a humorous mistake, opposition MPs began to question her competence.
She would say quote:
“The hostility was not pleasant. I was not used to it. It is a very lonely job in the sense that you cannot fraternize too much with the members and you do not go to caucus or political meetings. You grow to live without friendship and hope it will come back when your term is over.”
After a few months through, she began to excel in the role and she would preside over some very intense debates, including the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982. She would overhaul the finances of the house, eliminate inefficient practices, reduce House employment, lower the operations budget of the house and cut into the bureaucracy as well. Eliminating 300 House of Commons support personnel, she helped save $18 million in annual expenses. Some MPs were unhappy with the changes, which included having to clear their own plates in the Commons cafeteria. She also opened the first daycare centre on Parliament Hill, which for a time was the only such facility in the entire federal government. She also closed a private restaurant in the Wellington Building that had been installed without her approval. She stated it ruined the traditional, staid décor of the buildings.
While there were hiccups, like when 32 NDP MPs walked out of the House to protest her allowing the Liberals to have more questions than the Opposition, and the famous bell-ringing episode that lasted for 15 days when the Progressive Conservatives refused to show up for a vote on energy legislation, she would win the respect of the house. There were calls for her to force everyone to come back to vote but she would say quote:
“There is an important principle that one has to keep in mind. The House gets into a mess, the House gets itself out of that mess.”
By the time her role came to an end, even her critics felt she was firm and fair as Speaker of the House.
On Nov. 30, 1983, her term as Speaker of the House ended and on Dec. 23 of that year, she became the first woman Governor General of Canada. She was the second female Governor General in the Commonwealth, after Elmira Minita Gordon, who was Governor General of Belize in 1981.
She would say it was quote:
“A magnificent breakthrough for women. It was a great Christmas present. It is not the end, it is just an evolution in my career.”
Prime Minister Trudeau would make the decision without telling his cabinet, or his caucus and he waited until nearly Christmas when few people were in the Commons to announce the decision. When he did though, it was met almost universally with praise.
Her installation as Governor General was delayed though as she was hospitalized with a serious illness in January 1984, but she would finally be installed as Governor General in May of 1984. She would remain private about what the illness was, stating that the public only needed to know that she was well now. Some speculated that it was cancer, while others believed it was a respiratory illness. The CBC and other news organizations would even draft preliminary obituaries.
When she was finally sworn in, she appeared to be walking stiffly, and shuffled her feet beneath her large dress. She also spoke quietly and had appeared to have lost weight.
Trudeau would say when she was sworn in as Governor General quote:
“it is right and proper that her Majesty should finally have a woman representative here. We are gathered today to celebrate a remarkable person, but also a welcome evolution of our society.”
In her first speech as Governor General, she would say quote:
“Our commitment to peace must govern our state of mind and determine our approach to life and to work. This cannot be achieved in a nation of polarized thought and divided action. The desire for unity is, beyond doubt, the factor that inspires people to come together to create a truly human community.”
Sauvé would focus on national unity, peace and youth as her mandate as Governor General. In that role she established two awards for students wanting to enter the field of special education for exceptional children.
She would find she enjoyed her role in the first six months. In a December 1984 interview she said quote:
“I’ve found serenity here. I am above the fray. My mind is free to reflect on matters of concern to the country without having to go to battle.”
She would work long hours, starting work at 9:30 a.m. and often working until 11 p.m. due to the receptions she had to attend.
As Governor General, she would travel to Europe, Latin America and Asia. She found meeting people to be the best part of her job in Canada as well. She would say in 1990 quote:
“It seems to me every visit to any of the communities I have been to has been a highlight. You never know what you’re going to see, who you’re going to meet and it is always full of surprises. And everywhere you meet people who are dedicated to what they are doing. That is the role, to go and meet people, making the conscious of the Crown and the importance of the Constitution in their country.”
She would also keep up to date with cabinet papers, and met every two weeks with the Prime Minister, first Pierre Trudeau and then Brian Mulroney.
While they were cordial in public, it is believed there was friction between herself and Mulroney as she did not approve of his attempts to create a more presidential aura to the position of prime minister. This was seen when he greeted Ronald Reagan when he arrived in Canada for the Shamrock Summit, rather than Sauvé, which would have been traditional. He would also use her summer residence for the summit, in what many saw as an added insult to Sauve.
She would get her revenge though during the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner during a speech when she said to the crowd, and Mulroney, in a poem quote:
“The Irish were at it, the shamrocks were golden. Mulroney and Reagan don’t seem beholden. For the use of the fort and the loan of the key. They were working they said, there was no room for me.”
Sauvé would also be criticized for elevating her position to be more presidential, and critics would call her time as viceregal Republican Hall. There was speculation that her staff meddled with the plans of Lt. Governor Frederick Johnson of Saskatchewan to host a dinner at Government House in Regina, which Sauvé was to be a guest. Municipal event organizers for visits by Sauvé were also told that there would be no singing of the Royal Anthem and that the loyal toast to the Queen would be to Sauvé instead.
One of her favourite activities as Governor General was the annual Christmas Party that was held for the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club. Children would come, enjoy lunch, meet Santa, as Sauvé walked around in a paper party hat talking with guests. Through her time as Governor General, she was described as a person who mingled well with common Canadians, especially children, while maintaining the dignity of the position.
One story relates how a parent who lived near Government House thought at Halloween that one of the staff would be handing out candy. She relates quote:
“It turned out to be the Governor General herself. It showed another side of her.”
Sauvé would also establish a foundation to promote excellence for young Canadians, donate a trophy for women’s field hockey and ringette. She also established the Jeanne Sauvé Fair Play Award for national amateur athletes who demonstrated non-violence and fair play in their sport.
One thing that she was criticized for was closing the grounds of Rideau Hall somewhat beginning in 1986. It was not known if she made the decision or if it was made by her security officials. It would later be found out that $700,000 of taxpayer money was spent to build a fence to keep people out. The grounds would not reopen until 1990 when her successor took over.
People could still visit, but the fence was said to be in place to eliminate needless traffic and to improve security. Sauve would say that apart from the media and a few neighbours, very few people complained. She would say quote:
“How could they complain? We’ve advertised out to Vancouver and said please come visit Rideau Hall and people are coming. We’ve had 85,000 this year.”
In her New Year’s message in 1989, she would say quote:
“The country is no longer in its infancy, no longer must it ask whether to be or not to be. We have gone beyond the state of constitutional experimentation and compromise.”
This was seen by many as Sauve taking a stand regarding the Meech Lake Accord and drew criticism from some.
Sauve would say quote:
“Meech Lake is an accord that is different from a pact. I was making an historical reference, but if people want to interpret it that way, I can’t prevent it.”
In January 1990, her term as Governor General came to an end.
Her last act before leaving her post was to create the $10 million Jeanne Sauve Youth Foundation to help bring together young people with leadership abilities from around the world to discuss global problems.
She would say upon her retirement quote:
“I hope to be remembered as someone who cared enormously for her country.”
In her time as Governor General, she issued 784 Orders of Canada, 652 medals of the Order of Military Merit, 7,200 academic medals and was the honorary patron of over 200 organizations. She also travelled over 570,000 kilometres, visited 300 Canadian towns and cities, gave 427 speeches and attended almost 500 functions per year. She would also welcome 18 world leaders to Canada including President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and five members of the Royal Family.
She would retire to Montreal with her husband, who passed away in 1992.
On Jan. 26, 1993, she passed away.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would state quote:
“Her example and actions have touched and inspired millions of Canadians. All those who were honoured with her friendship, or who had the privilege to work or serve with her, will always remember her natural goodness and her clarity of mind.”
Liberal leader Jean Chretien stated quote:
“People from coast to coast will be saddened to hear this news. She was truly dedicated to Canada and its people.”
Sauve was given a state funeral in Montreal.
I’ll end this episode with what Carl Mollins of Macleans said of her after her death. He stated quote:
“Her manner has been described as haughty, her presence sometimes stiffly sedate, always beautifully groomed in high fashion, none of which seemed to endear her to the more ardent feminists or to some members of the public at large. But away from official occasions, and among many who met her personally, what spring to memory of Jeanne Sauvé are her warmth, her intelligence, her deep belief in Canada and her firm faith in its young people.”
Today, a park and district are named for her in Quebec, a building in Kingston, and seven schools in Manitoba and Ontario.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Macleans, Wikipedia, North Bay Nugget, CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Star, Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette,