Article abstract: As Canada’s first female governor-general, Sauvé was a pioneer for women and for French-Canadians.
Jeanne Mathilde Benoît was born on April 26, 1922, in Prud’Homme, Saskatchewan. Her father, Charles, a building contractor, and her mother, Anna, were French Canadians who were determined to preserve their culture in the midst of the English majority. Although the Benoît family had moved from the Saskatchewan prairies to the Canadian capital of Ottawa when Jeanne was three, they still felt surrounded by English speakers. To compensate, Charles reared his children in a traditional French cultural atmosphere, based on the Roman Catholic church. Jeanne attended church school throughout her childhood and adolescence. She then attended the University of Ottawa.
Jeanne Benoît left the somewhat stifling security of her childhood world behind forever when she moved to Montreal in 1943. Montreal was then the leading city in Canada, a multiethnic, cosmopolitan metropolis. Of greatest importance to Jeanne was that Montreal was primarily French-speaking; there, she did not have to shelter herself against the majority culture. As a member of Jeunesse Étudiante Catholique, a liberal organization of young Quebecois, Jeanne made many contacts that were to prove influential in the future, among them Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who years later was to sponsor Jeanne’s political career as prime minister of Canada. In 1948, Jeanne married Maurice Sauvé, an economics student. The Sauvés went to Europe, where Jeanne taught French in England and later received her baccalaureate degree at the University of Paris. Educated on two continents, Sauvé throughout her career was to impress Canadians as an unusually literate and intelligent politician and public figure. In 1952, the Sauvés returned to Canada.
Jeanne Sauvé soon began a career as a journalist and television personality. Fluently bilingual, Sauvé broadcast in both English and French on the best-known Canadian and American networks. Sauvé’s visibility and articulateness made her ideally suited to symbolize the aspirations of Quebec society during the 1960’s. During this decade, in a process known as the “Quiet Revolution,” Quebec was transformed under the leadership of Liberal premier Jean Lesage from a largely rural, conservative province to a progressive, assertive force that sought greater influence within Canada and even independence for itself. Although the conservative Union Nationale party had ruled Quebec during their youth, both Sauvés were enthusiastic about the modernizing Liberals. As Jeanne rose to fame in the media sector, Maurice was making equal headway in the political sphere, serving in prominent provincial and national posts. The Sauvés were becoming a true “power couple” in Quebec public affairs.
This career division between the couple was to end, however, when Maurice lost his seat in 1968. The national Liberal Party, Canada’s governing party, which by now was headed by Sauvé’s old friend Trudeau, asked Jeanne to run in his stead in the next election four years later. Sauvé won handily and moved to Ottawa to take her seat in the federal parliament for the next session. Sauvé’s move into national politics paralleled a decision made earlier by Trudeau and many other Quebecois politicians of his generation to “go to Ottawa” rather than focus their governmental ambitions within the province of Quebec. The ultimate goal of this decision was to make virtually manifest the theoretical assertion of equality between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians as the two founding languages of the Canadian confederation, to give French Canadians a position of leadership on the national scene. Trudeau, seeing in his old friend Sauvé a kindred spirit in this regard, almost immediately appointed her to a cabinet post in charge of issues relating to science and technology. Even though Sauvé was a political novice, she rose to the task impressively, exhibiting a technical proficiency and competence that went beyond mere execution of day-to-day policy. After Sauvé won reelection in 1974 in her home riding (the Canadian term for a parliamentary district) of Ahuntsic in Montreal, Trudeau promoted Sauvé to a position of more responsibility, that of minister of the environment. Sauvé’s most challenging crisis in this capacity was a dispute between the American state of North Dakota and the adjoining Canadian province of Manitoba over irrigation runoff that threatened to dump excess water from the upper Mississippi watershed into the Red River of the North Basin, largely located in Canada. Sauvé held her ground, although the dispute was resolved only after she had left office.
Sauvé’s rapid advance in prominence during the 1970’s was assisted by factors external to her own performance. This...
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