Sauvé, Jeanne (1922–1993)

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Sauvé, Jeanne (1922–1993)

Canadian feminist who was the first woman to be appointed governor-general of Canada. Name variations:Jeanne Sauve. Pronunciation: Zhahn So-VAY. Born Jeanne Mathilde Benoît on April 26, 1922, at Prud'homme, Saskatchewan; died on January 26, 1993, in Montreal, Quebec; fifth child of Charles Benoît (a building contractor) and Anna (Vaillant) Benoît; attended Notre Dame du Rosaire Convent, Ottawa, the University of Ottawa, as well as the University of Paris, graduating with a diploma in French civilization, 1952; married Maurice Sauvé, in 1948; children: Jean-François Sauvé (b. 1959).

On October 29, 1984, the new governor-general of Canada was officially sworn into office in an impressive ceremony in the nation's capital, Ottawa. A non-political post, the governor-general is intended to act as the official emissary to Queen Elizabeth II , representing the interests of all Canadians. What made this particular ceremony unique was the fact that, for the first time in the history of the office, the honor was granted to a woman: Jeanne Sauvé.

She was born on April 26, 1922, in the tiny hamlet of Prud'homme, located about 30 miles north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She was the fifth of seven children of Charles and Anna Benoît who had migrated from Quebec ten years previously. Her father was a building contractor who specialized in the construction of small Catholic churches and nunneries. Both parents were native French speakers who strongly believed in the importance and value of Canada's Francophone heritage. These values, however, were difficult to impart in the predominantly Anglophone atmosphere of Saskatchewan where, at that time, there were few French-language schools.

[She was] from the great race of pioneering women who opened the door of Canada's highest institutions to women.

—Pierre Trudeau

Shortly after Jeanne was born, two of her older sisters had been sent east to Ottawa in order to receive their education. The Benoîts, however, were not happy to see their family break up in this manner. Accordingly, in 1925, they abandoned their business in Saskatchewan so that the entire family could be together in the nation's capital.

When Jeanne was six, she began to attend the Notre Dame du Rosaire Convent, a prominent religious school run by the Grey Nuns. For the next 12 years, she consistently impressed her teachers with her keen intelligence (she was always top of her class) and her unselfish willingness to help her fellow students. She took an active part in team sports and games, and developed an excellent command of the English language and a reputation as a self-confident student who could eloquently and forcefully make her point of view understood.

Sauvé would later recall two of the most prominent influences which affected her during this period. First, the surroundings of the convent school instilled in her a sense of religious devoutness which she was to retain for the rest of her life. Second, when she was ten, her father took her on a visit to the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliamentary building. Just outside the chamber stood a bust of Agnes Macphail , the first woman to be elected to the House. According to Sauvé, her father pointed to the bust and told his daughter that some day she too would become a famous politician.

This mixture of religion and politics proved a powerful attraction. When she was 15, Sauvé joined the Jeunesse Étudiante Catholique (JÉC), one of several Catholic action organizations which then existed in Quebec. Many of these, such as Lionel Groulx's L'Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Canadienne-Français (ACJC), combined a fierce commitment to Quebec nationalism with a very conservative attitude against any form of change to the social structure (particularly the place of women in that structure). The JÉC was distinct, however, in that its members advocated not only the continuance of Quebec within the Canadian federation (albeit with some amelioration in its position), but also certain mild left-wing proposals for enhancing social change and reform.

Sauvé was an active member of the JÉC throughout her remaining years at the convent school. Just prior to her graduation in 1940, she won a scholarship to the University of Ottawa for a Bachelor of Arts degree. She was keen to take up this scholarship, but her father refused to permit it on the grounds that, although generous, it would not be sufficient to cover all her expenses for a full-time education. Deeply disappointed, she eventually managed to make her father agree to a compromise. If she were allowed to take night classes at the university, she would support herself with a regular job during the day. Fortunately, Jeanne soon managed to secure a well-paying position with the federal government as a French-English translator in the Department of National Defense.

Although she greatly enjoyed her university studies, Sauvé became increasingly dissatisfied with the slow pace towards her degree. Accordingly, when two years later, in 1942, she was offered the opportunity to move to Montreal to take up a position as president of the women's section of the JÉC, she willingly agreed. Sauvé's tenure as president proved to be an exciting and invigorating experience. She quickly developed into a first-class public speaker and a highly capable administrator. Moreover, she was introduced to a number of young, dynamic intellectuals, such as Pierre Trudeau, Marc Lalonde, and Gerard Pelletier, who were determined to put into practice their shared views about the place of Quebec in Canada and the need for social reform. Finally, she met and fell in love with her future husband, Maurice Sauvé.

In his youth, Maurice had been a strong Quebec nationalist, but his views had modified substantially thanks to his growing awareness that Francophones and Anglophones shared a common interest in a strong, united Canada. He had been the first French-Canadian to be elected president of the National Federation of Canadian University Students and was already a qualified lawyer when he met Jeanne. In 1948, however, he received a scholarship to study at the

London School of Economics in England and, before leaving, he decided to marry. Maurice had clear criteria for a wife; she must be an equal, independent, and willing to pursue her own career. Jeanne fitted these requirements and the subsequent success of their marriage testified to Maurice's insight into her character.

The day after their marriage, the couple set sail for London. For the next two years, Sauvé worked at a series of minor jobs, while her husband worked at his doctoral degree in economics. In 1950, they moved to Paris where both registered at the Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris. While Maurice finished his doctorate, Jeanne managed to complete a diploma course in French civilization and, at the same time, worked part-time in the youth section of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Sauvés returned to Montreal in the summer of 1952 where both found work as union organizers for the Canadian Federation of Labour. Neither was entirely comfortable at this task, and Maurice soon left to take on new responsibilities as a consultant to the Royal Commission on the Economy which convened in Ottawa. Jeanne meanwhile began her own new career as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and its sister French-language network Radio-Canada. Over the next 20 years, she became one of the country's most distinguished public broadcasters, widely regarded as an astute interviewer and insightful commentator on the major political issues of the day. She won many plaudits for the integrity and intelligence which she brought to current affairs programming and for the skill with which she could present difficult and complex issues to the listening public. Sauvé, it is fair to say, set new standards of excellence in broadcasting which have rarely been surpassed to this day.

Her position as a journalist also kept her in regular contact with her old friends Trudeau, Lalonde, and Pelletier who by this time were becoming leading members of the federal Liberal Party. Trudeau would become prime minister of Canada in 1968 and Lalonde would serve as his minister of finance. This political connection was also strengthened by her husband Maurice's decision to enter Parliament. He had originally joined the Liberal Party in 1958 and had won election to the House of Commons four years later. In 1964, he was appointed a Cabinet minister with responsibility for forests and rural development in the government of then prime minister Lester Pearson.

At the end of the 1960s, the great political question in Canada revolved around the position of Quebec in the nation. Trudeau, along with his federal and provincial colleagues, searched vainly for some compromise which would recognize the uniqueness of Francophone Quebec while keeping Canada as a whole united. On the other hand, an increasingly strident nationalist movement began to call for nothing less than the recognition of Quebec as an independent, sovereign country. Matters came to a head in 1970, when a terrorist group—the Front de la Libération du Quebec (FLQ)—launched a series of bombings, kidnappings and murders that eventually led to the government's imposition of the War Measures Act, which effectively curtailed a range of civil and political liberties in Quebec.

Sauvé was deeply concerned with these developments but felt that her position as a public broadcaster did not allow her to fully express her own views on the issues. It was in these circumstances that she decided to abandon journalism and enter politics. As always, Maurice, who had recently lost his own seat in Parliament, encouraged his wife in her decision. Thus, in the general election of 1972, Sauvé was elected as the Liberal Party member for the Quebec riding (district) of Laval des Rapides. She was 50 years of age.

Prime Minister Trudeau immediately invited Sauvé to join the federal Cabinet (she was the first woman from Quebec to be awarded this distinction). Her initial portfolio was as minister of science and technology, where her background training in broadcasting allowed her to make significant contributions, particularly in the area of telecommunications policy. Reelected at the general election in 1974, Sauvé was then assigned to the ministry of the environment before switching to the newly created department of communications a year later.

Following a brief period in 1979 when the Conservative Party held office, the Liberals resumed power in 1980. Trudeau, however, did not want Sauvé back in the Cabinet as he suspected her of covertly supporting one of his opponents in a recent challenge to his leadership. On the other hand, she was too prominent a politician to be simply demoted. He decided instead to appoint Sauvé as (the first woman) speaker of the House of Commons. The holder of this post has a key role to play in the parliamentary system, as he or she regulates all debates and ensures that proper legal and procedural practices are followed in the House.

Sauvé later described her first months in this position as sheer torture. She was slow to learn the names of all 282 members of Parliament and was often too confused to note whether she had accepted equal numbers of questions from the government and opposition sides of the House. Often entangled in points of order and points of privilege, she gave rulings that were angrily rejected by one side or the other. Under her control, debates in the House degenerated into slinging matches and, on more than one occasion, all business had to be abandoned until order could be restored.

Although Sauvé worked hard to learn members' names and memorize the standing orders governing the House's business, she continued to be viewed as a weak speaker. It was not until 1982, when she suggested procedural reforms concerning the way in which parliamentary debates were conducted, that members of Parliament and the media began to show some grudging respect for her efforts. On the other hand, her work in administrating the House met with greater success. She was always an able organizer and set about to cut spending by disposing of many of the perks and privileges which members enjoyed. Sauvé also instituted personnel policies based on merit and a new accounting system for supplies and services. Moreover, she improved security services around the House of Commons and also introduced a day-care center for Commons staff.

When she eventually stepped down from the position in 1984 (following the Liberal Party's defeat in an election), Sauvé was emotionally and physically drained. She began to suffer from a serious respiratory illness, and for a short time her life was believed to be in danger. Her only thoughts were of retiring with her husband to their home in Montreal.

Not surprisingly, when she was first asked by the new Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney to become governor-general of Canada, Sauvé's instinct was to refuse. On reflection, however, she realized that this position offered her a unique opportunity to promote those principles of Canadian unity that she had argued for throughout her life. For the next six years, Sauvé earned a reputation for the dignity and flair with which she represented the people of Canada at official events at home and abroad.

In 1990, Sauvé stepped down as governor-general and retired to Montreal. She remained active by establishing the Foundation Jeanne Sauvé, a charitable trust which seeks to bring together youth leaders from around the world. Her greatest tragedy, however, was the death of her husband Maurice in 1992. After that her own health rapidly deteriorated. Early in January 1993 she was admitted to hospital in Montreal, where it was discovered that her respiratory condition had given rise to cancer. She died later that month and was honored by the Canadian government with a state funeral.


Clockie, Hugh. Canadian Government and Politics. Toronto: Longmans, 1984.

Jackson, Robert. Politics in Canada. Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1986.

Woods, Shirley E. Her Excellency Jeanne Sauvé. Toronto: Macmillan, 1986.

suggested reading:

Brooks, Stephen. Canadian Democracy. Toronto: Mc-Clelland and Stewart, 1993.


A selection of Jeanne Sauvé's private papers are held in the National Archives of Canada.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada