WHEN the diminutive Jeanne Sauve was named the first woman Speaker in the Canadian House of Commons in 1980, the massive, ornately carved Speaker's Chair had to be cut down so that her feet would reach the pedestal.
But although small in physical stature, Sauve towered over her generation as a pace-setter in the political, cultural and intellectual life of Canada, and was described by the former prime minister Pierre Trudeau when she was sworn in as Canada's first female Governor-General as being from 'the race of pioneering women'. As the leader of the Liberal Party, Jean Chretien, put it, she represented 'what is best of Canada' as a bilingual Francophone, born not in Quebec but on the Saskatchewan prairie, who spent her life bridging the country's two solitudes.
She was born Jeanne Benoit in 1922, and when she was three her family moved to Ottawa, where her building contractor father insisted the seven children speak French at home and at school to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage while surrounded by an English-speaking milieu.
As a teenager, Jeanne became active in a Catholic youth movement, Jeunesse Etudiante Catholique, a move that profoundly changed her life. Through it, she met another activist, Maurice Sauve, and together they went on to work as organisers in the Catholic Union movement that played a seminal role in Quebec's 'awakening' after the Second World War. They were married in 1948.
From union organising, Jeanne Sauve moved to journalism and became a prominent broadcaster on both the English and French networks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as well as a magazine and newspaper editorial writer. She and her husband were part of a group of reform-oriented Quebecers (a group that included Pierre Trudeau) which believed Quebec's interests would be best served by seeking to play an enhanced role in the national government in Ottawa rather than pursuing independence.
Elected in a suburban Montreal seat in 1972, she established a series of firsts, including being sworn in by Trudeau as the first woman federal cabinet minister from Quebec. Although she refused to ally herself with feminist causes, she broke down the doors to many previously male preserves while demanding she be evaluated on her merits rather than her gender. She was chosen to be the first woman to become the Queen's representative in Canada in 1984 but her swearing-in was delayed for several months while she battled Hodgkin's disease, the malady which eventually killed her.
In Government House she filled the role with grace and dignity. On the question of national unity, however, she went beyond the traditionally ceremonial role to make pointed appeals for political leadership. But her sometimes austere formality also drew criticism, especially when she closed the extensive grounds of the official residence to the public.
Even in retirement, she continued to challenge Quebec nationalists. 'In Quebec, we have incorrectly identified the enemy,' she said recently. 'It is the Americanisation of our culture. That is the real threat.'
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