Sauvé was born in the Fransaskois community of Prud'homme, Saskatchewan to Charles Albert Benoît and Anna Vaillant. She studied at Notre Dame du Rosaire Convent in Ottawa and at the University of Ottawa. She was actively involved in student and political affairs and became the national president of the Young Catholic Students Group at the age of 20.
On September 24, 1948 she married Maurice Sauvé. Later that year, they moved to Europe, where she earned a diploma in French civilization at the Université de Paris. The couple had one child. Sauvé was a founding member of the Institute of Political Research and for over 28 years had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
She was elected Liberal MP from Montreal in 1972, and was, along with Monique Bégin and Albanie Morin, one of the first three women ever elected to the House of Commons from Quebec. Sauvé became the first woman cabinet member from Quebec as Minister of State for Science and Technology under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She was re-elected in July 1974 and given the environment portfolio. In 1975, she was appointed Minister of Communications with responsibility for French-speaking countries in the Department of External Affairs. She also opened the first daycare on Parliament Hill.
In 1980 Trudeau appointed her as the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons.
Despite being in the non-partisan role of Speaker, Sauvé campaigned for the "No" forces during the 1980 Quebec referendum. This was possible as all parties in the House of Commons at that time were federalist and because the referendum was provincial, not federal.
As well as presiding over debate, the Speaker of the House of Commons is also responsible for managing expenses and staff. As Speaker she implemented reforms to professionalize the management of the House.
She presided over debates on the Canadian Constitution dealing with filibusters and numerous points of order. She was also Speaker during an Opposition campaign against the Energy Security Act, which culminated in a two-week bell-ringing episode when the Official Opposition's Whip refused to appear on the floor of the Commons to indicate the Opposition was ready for a vote. Despite pressure by the government that she intervene to resolve the deadlock she maintained that it was up to the parties to resolve it themselves through negotiation.
In the winter of 1983 Prime Minister Trudeau announced her appointment as Governor General. She became the second woman in a Commonwealth realm to assume the office, the first being Elmira Minita Gordon of Belize. She was sworn in on May 14, 1984.
Sauvé had been a long-time sufferer from cancer. In the weeks leading to her inauguration she unexpectedly became ill, and nearly died in the hospital. She made a surprising recovery, however, and was ultimately able to be sworn in on May 14, 1984 without delay.
Sauvé was a staunch advocate of issues surrounding youth and world peace, and the dove of peace is one of the elements incorporated into Sauvé's coat-of-arms. Long before her vice-regal mandate, she worked as assistant to the Director of the Youth Secretariat of UNESCO, served as Secretary of the Canadian Committee for the World Assembly of Youth, and initiated and hosted a discussion show for youth. At Rideau Hall, she established two awards for students wishing to enter the field of special education for exceptional children. And at the end of her mandate, she established the Jeanne Sauvé Youth Foundation, dedicated to the cause of youth excellence in Canada.
Sauvé's concern for youth and peace were two of the three central themes of her mandate – the third was national unity. She travelled extensively, making her role as Governor General – a largely symbolic office – accessible to all Canadians. In her installation speech she spoke about the need for Canadians to forgo a narrow sense of their nation and to become more tolerant. "This is the price of our happiness", she said, "but happiness will never be found in the spirit of 'every man for himself'."
In 1986 Sauvé accepted on behalf of the 'People of Canada' the Nansen Medal, a prestigious international humanitarian award which is given in recognition of major and sustained efforts made on behalf of refugees. This was the first time since the medal's inception in 1954 that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees presented it to an entire population. The Nansen Medal is kept at Rideau Hall.
Sauvé's enthusiasm for the value of sports led her to establish the Jeanne Sauvé Trophy for the world cup championship in women's field hockey. She also created the Jeanne Sauvé Fair Play Award to recognize national amateur athletes who best demonstrate fair play and non-violence in sport. She also encouraged a safer society in Canada by establishing the Governor General's Award for Safety in the Workplace.
Sauvé and her love of education and co-existence between French- and English-speaking Canadians led for the first French immersion school in western Canada to be founded in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The school was aptly named Collège Jeanne-Sauvé.
During her term as Governor General Sauvé made state visits to Italy; the Vatican; the People's Republic of China; Thailand, where she received an honorary doctorate in political science from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok; and to France, where she received the Médaille de la Chancellerie des universités de Paris, La Sorbonne, Paris. She also made a state visit to Uruguay and Brazil, and to commemorate the Brazil visit the "Governor General Jeanne Sauvé Fellowship/Bourse commémorative du Gouverneur général Jeanne Sauvé", an award to be made each year to a Brazilian graduate student in Canadian Studies, was established.
Sauvé also received a number of distinguished visitors, including: The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, King Hussein of Jordan, Pope John Paul II, U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, French President François Mitterrand, Chinese President Li Xiannian; Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu, as well as the presidents of Israel, Tanzania, Italy, the People's Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Cameroon, Iceland, and the Philippines. As well, in 1988, Sauvé met with Mother Teresa of Calcutta at the Citadelle. That same year, she opened the XV Olympic Winter Games in Calgary.
She also hosted Prince Edward, who presented the Royal Letters Patent signed by the Queen patriating heraldry to Canada, which led to the establishment of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. As the Head of the Canadian Heraldic Authority the Governor General holds the Sovereign's prerogative power and provides for the creation of new heraldic honours in the form of coats of arms, flags, badges, and other emblems.
One of her favourite events was the annual Christmas party for the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club and its French counterpart, the Patro d'Ottawa. The children came to Rideau Hall for lunch and a visit with Santa. Sauvé personally hosted her young guests and wore a paper party hat to celebrate the special occasion.
During his wife's mandate Maurice Sauvé continued to pursue his own business concerns while participating in many Canadian cultural activities. As the spouse of the Governor General, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and was the first male viceregal consort.
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