Canada's new head of state works 'to keep the nation together'

She is a wife, mother, feminist, journalist, and politician. Later this month she takes on a totally new role as Canada's first woman governor general.

In tapping Jeanne Benoit Sauve for the largely ceremonial but significant post, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has given his nation what both his Liberal Party and the opposition Progressive Conservatives hailed as a ''marvelous'' Christmas present.

''This time, Pierre Trudeau got it right,'' exults columnist Charles Lynch, one of the prime minister's most vocal critics.

Most other Canadian comment was equally enthusiastic about the announcement Dec. 23 that Mrs. Sauve will replace Edward R. Schreyer as governor general. While the job is hedged about with restrictions, Canadian history shows that it can be fashioned very much by the person occupying Rideau Hall, the home of the governor general.

Mr. Schreyer, former premier of Manitoba who was named governor general in 1978, never seemed at ease with the job and he was generally viewed as a rather lackluster figure in the post.

Quite a few Canadians, however, expect Mrs. Sauve to fit in nicely and bring a note of distinction to the post, which serves as Canada's main link with the British Crown. As governor general, she will be head of state - representing not only the Crown, but also the concept of the Canadian union. That concept was badly battered in the 1970s by the separatist efforts of the province of Quebec.

Mrs. Sauve has good credentials for this second role. Like Mr. Trudeau, she is a federalist, a determined and ardent advocate of keeping Canada one nation, but a nation that represents both the English and the French. Canadian unity will be one of her main goals. She says she has worked always ''to keep this country together'' and she intends to continue doing so.

Moreover, she is a Quebecker. Although she was born in the midwest prairie province of Saskatchewan, she is more associated with the French Canadians of Quebec, where she has spent her adult life as a journalist and politician.

She is very much part of the upper-middle-class generation of French Canadians, headed by Mr. Trudeau, who 15 years ago as members of the Liberal Party went from the fashionable Outremont area of Montreal to the federal capital in Ottawa to prove they had a place in a nation that largely thought itself English.

With what the Toronto Globe and Mail calls ''their effortless bilingualism,'' they made a place for themselves and ended up running the country.

Mrs. Sauve, a onetime Cabinet minister under Mr. Trudeau, has been speaker of the Liberal-dominated House of Commons for the past three and a half years.

Ironically, although she will have at least five years as governor general, the Liberal Party may soon be out of office, if the opinion polls are correct. She would then be head of state for a Progressive Conservative government, likely to be headed by Brian Mulroney. He is another Quebecker, but one of English stock.

Mr. Mulroney can easily get along with Mrs. Sauve. He was quick to say so following her appointment. That is important, for beyond the ceremonial tasks in her new job, she will be something of a symbol for Canadians - of their unity and their link with the Crown.

Before she is sworn in late in January, incidently, Mrs. Sauve will likely go to London to meet Queen Elizabeth II. That's a traditional gesture that new governor generals make before taking office.

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