Canada is a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth, previously the British Empire. The official head of state remains the British monarch and the governor general is their representative. The office’s origins are closely tied to the military and diplomatic power of the United Kingdom and the assumption that colonial politicians needed guidance, if not discipline, from London. Only in 1959 was the first Canadian-born governor-general appointed, Georges Vanier, whose career as a French Canadian military officer and diplomat made him a significant reflection of growing recognition of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural nation. His female successors were likewise symbolically important. On the one hand their gender clearly acknowledged the greater significance of women in discourses of full citizenship. Their appointments also, however, made other symbolic claims of significance to the national politics of their day.
A few wives of governors-general, notably Ishbel Marjoribanks Gordon, Lady Aberdeen, were described as ‘governesses-general’ but not until 1984-1990 did Canada have its first female governor-general (and only the second in the Commonwealth after an earlier appointment in Belize). Jeanne Sauvé (1922-93), a French Canadian journalist and Liberal politician, was nominated by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau. Her origins in Saskatchewan’s Francophone community, rather than in the heartland of francophonia, Quebec, helped remind other citizens of French Canada’s claim to the entire nation. Like many of her predecessors and successors, she was occasionally credited with breaching the political neutrality that was expected of the office but she drew on interests especially linked with women in her embrace of the causes of youth and peace during her term in office. She is also remembered for the Jeanne Sauvé Trophy for the winner of women’s world hockey championship, a long-delayed counterpart to the Stanley Cup, donated in 1892 by Lord Stanley, then Governor-General and now awarded to the winner of the (male) National Hockey League. Her appointment also attested to the strength of the second Canadian women’s movement in the 1980s, a decade sometimes viewed as its zenith. The year 1984, for example, also saw the first nationally broadcast election debate on women’s issues, notably equality, daycare, abortion, and disarmament, which had many distinguished moments but perhaps most notably the inquiry ‘Why should we trust you now?’ (Pierson and Cohen 23)
The second woman to occupy the office was Adrienne Clarkson (b 1939; 1999-2005), a journalist and diplomat. She had arrived as a young child in Canada as a refugee from Hong Kong in 1941. She was the first office-holder of Asian descent. She too was the appointee of a Liberal government. An articulate and visible champion of the multicultural nation somewhat uncertainly embraced at the end of the 20th century, she was quickly associated with inclusion and citizenship. In 2005, she founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and in 2011 published Room for All of Us: Stories of Loss and Transformation, which captured some part of what it has meant to immigrate to Canada. Her liberal politics are also reflected in her choice to write a biography (2009) of Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor most famous for aiding Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.
The third female governor-general was Michaëlle Jean (b 1957; 2005-2010), journalist, broadcaster, and activist, and the first to be closely associated with the feminist movement, notably with campaigns against domestic violence. Like Clarkson, she arrived as a refugee; she was the first governor-general to come from Haiti and the second (after Clarkson) to be in an inter-racial marriage. Appropriately enough she soon inaugurated a website titled “Citizens’ Voices: Breaking Down Solitudes.” Her appointment in effect recognized the new visibility and political importance of the nation’s African-origin population. The choice of Jean by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin may also have hoped to compensate in part, at least among feminist voters, for his government’s continuing failure to introduce a long promised national day care program. Jean stirred some initial controversy because she was accused of sympathies for Quebec independence and because of her dual French-Canadian citizenship. She denied the former and surrendered her French passport, not it should be noted a condition of Canadian citizenship generally. Upon retirement she became the UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Haiti, which had been badly hurt by a hurricane in 2010.
Sauvé, Clarkson, and Jean all spoke to ‘official’ Canada’s acceptance of equality. The trend to an increasing identification with feminism is also a measure of progress. What remains to be interrogated, however, is the match between their high rank and the situation of other Canadian women, whom UN reports continue to remind us still face oppression and disadvantage.
“Adrienne Louise Clarkson,” The Canadian Encylopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/adrienne-louise-clarkson
“Campaigning for Canada,” The National. CBC. August 15, 1984.
Adrienne Clarkson, Heart Matters (Toronto: Penguin, 2009).
“Jeanne Matilde Sauvé,” The Canadian Encylopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/jeannemathilde-sauve
“Michaëlle Jean,” The Canadian Encylopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/michaelle-jean
Ruth R. Pierson and Marjorie G. Cohen, Canadian Women’s Issues (Toronto: James Lorimer &Co., 1995)
Shirley Woods, Her Excellency Jeanne Sauvé (Halifax: Formac, 1987).