CBC Digital Archives

Jeanne Sauvé's early years

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.

When she was a young girl, Jeanne Mathilde Benoît's father would take his daughter to visit Parliament Hill. While there, Charles Benoît would sometimes show Jeanne the bust of Agnes Macphail, Canada's first woman MP. "You could become a member of Parliament some day if you wanted to," the modest contractor would say to his daughter. As the now grown-up Jeanne Sauvé tells Peter Gzowski in this excerpt from a 1985 radio interview, having a father who celebrated women's achievements at that time was extremely important for her.

(To listen to the entire interview, see the additional clip "Sauvé chats with Gzowski.")  
• Jeanne Sauvé was born Jeanne Mathilde Benoît on April 26, 1922, in Prud'homme, Sask. She was the fifth of seven children born to Charles and Anna Benoît.
• Charles, a French Canadian, was originally from Ottawa. Anna grew up in small-town Quebec, just outside of Ottawa.
• The family had moved to Saskatchewan because there were good opportunities for Charles, who was in the construction trade, to build houses in the rapidly developing area.

• Charles may have worked in a "blue-collar" trade, but his real interests were more cerebral. "He was a quiet man with a wry sense of humour, whose favourite pleasure was to settle down with an interesting book," according to Shirley E. Woods' 1986 biography Her Excellency Jeanne Sauvé.

• The family moved back to Ottawa from Saskatchewan when Jeanne was three. According to Woods, the Benoîts considered their children's education extremely important: "A major reason for the move (to Ottawa) was Charles Benoît's desire for all his children to get a sound French education. Besides being his home, Ottawa had a number of good French schools and a French university."

• Jeanne was educated at the Notre-Dame de Rosaire convent in Ottawa. She was an outstanding student from the beginning. "Jeanne led her class year after year at the convent," explained Woods in his Sauvé biography.
• Woods tells an amusing story about the star student disappointing a nun who hoped Jeanne would enter a religious vocation. When the nun asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, the future governor general replied, "I would like to be well-dressed."

• After Jeanne graduated high school, her family was unable to pay for her full university education. Since she desperately wanted to further her education, the bilingual teen took a job as a translator with the government during the day while attending classes at the University of Ottawa at night.

• In 1942, Jeanne went to work for the Jeunesse étudiante catholique (or the Young Catholic Students Group), a religious movement that also had practical social aims. Her job was to be a propagandiste -- essentially a public relations person -- writing articles and making speeches about the organization. For this work, she had to move to Montreal.

• While working for the JEC, Jeanne met Montreal law student Maurice Sauvé. Sauvé saw Jeanne as an ideal match, since he was looking for an independent-minded wife who was intellectually his equal and wanted to pursue her own career. The two married in 1948.

• After the wedding they moved to London, England. Maurice had won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where he studied until 1950. While in London, Jeanne taught and tutored part time.
• In 1950, the couple moved to Paris. Jeanne worked as assistant to the director of the Youth Secretariat at UNESCO -- a very well-paid position -- while Maurice enrolled at the University of Paris to complete his doctorate.

• Jeanne began studying at the Sorbonne in 1951. She graduated with a degree in French Civilization in 1952, the same year Maurice successfully completed his PhD in economics.
• They returned to Canada later that summer. The reason for their return, according to Woods, "was quite simple: in Jeanne's words, 'we were committed to Canada.'" jeanne sauve
Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: April 25, 1985
Guest(s): Jeanne Sauvé
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 3:01
Photo: Sauvé Family Collection

Last updated: April 16, 2013

Page consulted on September 12, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Leaders' Debates 1968-2011: Highlights

After months of anticipation and weeks of campaigning, it all comes down to one night. Televis...

Peter Gzowski: Voice of Canada

For three hours a day, five days a week - for 15 years - millions tuned in to CBC Radio's Morn...

Marc Garneau: Canadian Space Pioneer

His bravery is inspiring, his grace is charming and his credentials are out of this world. In ...

The Avro Arrow: Canada's Broken Dream

It's the closest thing Canadian industry has to a love story and a murder mystery. The Avro Ar...

1960: Canada celebrates two millionth immigra...

Annette Toft, formerly of Denmark, becomes Canada's two millionth immigrant since the Second W...