CBC Digital Archives

Speaker Sauvé 'still learning'

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.

media clip
Several NDP MPs have walked out of Parliament. They're protesting Jeanne Sauvé's handling of question period. Why? They believe the new Speaker of the House is letting Liberals ask more than their share of questions. In this news clip, Sauvé doesn't deny that the Liberals have asked a few more questions lately. But if you look at the average numbers, she protests, you'll see that "there's no unfairness there." Sauvé also adds that she's "still learning," having only been on the job for three months.
• The Speaker of the House is basically a moderator for Parliament, making sure parliamentary rules are followed during debates and discussion. As such, the Speaker must remain impartial - he or she can't participate in debates and only votes when there is a tie. The Speaker also has the double duty of being head of the House of Commons administration, responsible for its overall direction and management.

• Prime Minister Trudeau wanted Sauvé for the role for several reasons, according to biographer Shirley E. Woods. It was a francophone's turn for the job, and Trudeau believed it was time for a woman to hold the position. He also thought she was a logical choice because she had the right temperament, was a good public speaker, and hadn't been overly partisan in the past.

• According to Woods, when Trudeau first asked Sauvé to become Speaker of the House her immediate response was "Oh no, not that!" Woods explained that although it's a prestigious position, there are drawbacks. It can be "the kiss of death to a political career - most Speakers go on to the Senate, the bench, or an ambassadorship." For someone with strong opinions, it can be difficult to remain neutral. It's also quite a stressful job.

• As a strong believer in national unity, one of her initial objections to becoming Speaker was that she wanted to campaign for unity in the Quebec referendum of 1980. But as Speaker, she wouldn't be allowed to take sides. After some negotiation, Trudeau allowed her to take a public stand on that one issue, and other party leaders Ed Broadbent and Joe Clark agreed to those terms. She subsequently said yes to the role.

• In addition to the controversy described in this clip, Sauvé had countless difficulties during her time as Speaker. At first, when recognizing MPs to speak she often got their names or constituencies wrong. She even once accidentally addressed Prime Minister Trudeau as "Leader of the Opposition," which elicited great roars of laughter in the House. She fumbled procedural rulings at times. All of this led to a number of MPs questioning her competence.

• A 1982 Toronto Star article outlined the frustration and anger felt by many MPs, especially Conservative ones. The article noted, "Their animosity is all too obvious in the Commons where they snap at her with increasing frequency and venom." As one anonymous MP told the Star: "It's surprising someone hasn't taken a Hansard and thrown it at the chair or taken a judo chop at the mace."

• According to biographer Woods, "Being one of only two Speakers in the history of Parliament who didn't have a legal background made her competence even more suspect." Woods also believed sexism may have had something to do with what he interpreted as an excessive response to her errors. And he said the fact that television cameras had only been recently introduced in the House was another reason for such publicly negative MP reactions to Sauvé, since TV "encouraged posturing and 'showboating' in front of the cameras."

• As of 2005, Sauvé has been the only female Speaker of the House in Canadian history. jeanne sauve
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: July 7, 1980
Guest(s): Svend Robinson, Jeanne Sauvé
Anchor: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Bruce Cameron
Duration: 2:17

Last updated: October 1, 2014

Page consulted on October 1, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

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

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...

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...