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Jeanne Sauvé's controversial speech

When describing Jeanne Sauvé, it's hard not to think of the word "first." She was the first woman MP from Quebec to become a cabinet minister, Canada's first female Speaker of the House, and the first female governor general. As she moved from broadcast journalist to high-profile political figure, Sauvé undoubtedly had her share of challenges and controversies. But through it all, the woman of "firsts" never lost her characteristic elegance and grace.

"Unity is an illusion if it is not based on defined foundations that promise to be durable," proclaims Jeanne Sauvé in her final address as governor general. Canadian unity will dissolve, she adds, "unless the parties involved ratify their pact and do not let Canada drift into an unforeseeable future." Could this be a reference to the Meech Lake accord? After this 1989 speech airs, many viewers think so. The ostensibly neutral Sauvé is heavily criticized for what seems to be a partisan plea. 
• As soon as this speech aired, most critics concluded that it referred to the Meech Lake accord. A highly controversial political topic at the time, the ongoing Meech Lake discussions were a federal attempt to redress the 1982 Constitution's neglect of Quebec and native Canadian concerns. One of the more controversial aspects was the "distinct society" clause, which recognized Quebec's special status within Canada. (See the topic Constitutional Discord: Meech Lake.)

• The day after the speech, a Canadian Press story said that even though she "avoided the phrase Meech Lake, the references to the constitutional accord are obvious. She mentions 'the pact,' the 'distinctiveness' of the Canadian identity and devotes a paragraph to how aboriginals and founding peoples are in the process of acquiring a guarantee allowing them to practise their culture and language."

• Sauvé was heavily criticized for making political comments as Governor General. In the Canadian Press story, Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells said it was "inappropriate for the Crown to be intruding in political affairs that way." Bill Dawson, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario, called her use of the word pact "injudicious." But he wasn't surprised, considering it was her final Governor General's speech. "As a farewell gesture she might feel entitled to be a little more lax in what she says."

• Sauvé always maintained that it wasn't a reference to Meech Lake. She said she was merely speaking generally about Canadian unity, and the Governor General is allowed to discuss unity in general. In a 1990 CBC interview, she said she was using the word "pact" in a generic sense, referring to the original agreement between the two founding nations. "I wasn't making an appeal for one side of the discussion or another," she insisted.

• Sauvé finished her term as Governor General in January 1990, when her successor Ray Hnatyshyn was sworn in. Her final act as Governor General was to found the $10-million Jeanne Sauvé Youth Foundation, dedicated to developing the leadership potential of young people through scholarships and other initiatives.

• During Sauvé's term as Governor General she made numerous high-profile state visits, including to Italy, Thailand, France, Uruguay and Brazil. She was the first Canadian Governor General to visit the People's Republic of China, where she received an extremely warm welcome.
• Highlights of her term also included creating the Jeanne Sauvé Fair Play Award for amateur athletes, as well as the Governor General's Award for Safety in the Workplace.
• After her term was over, Sauvé and her husband retired in Montreal.
jeanne sauve
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television Special
Broadcast Date: Dec. 29, 1989
Speaker: Jeanne Sauvé
Duration: 7:33

Last updated: April 16, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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