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At 38 years of age, Désirée McGraw has a CV of someone twice her age. As a high school activist, the 16-year-old McGraw and three other students toured the nation's secondary schools promoting global peace during the 1980s. Their efforts garnered worldwide attention, including invitations to the United Nations, the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. Still a teenager, McGraw co-hosted a video series with David Suzuki titled Alive in a Nuclear Age which turned her on to global environmental issues. Over the ensuing 20 years, McGraw acted as a consultant, researcher, reporter, senior political advisor and spokesperson in the field of sustainable development – a path that led to her being among a select group trained by former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore in 2007 on the science and solutions of climate change. In February 2008, McGraw began her new job as Executive Director of the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation and Scholars Program – a natural fit since the program attracts to McGill some of the brightest young minds on the planet. Recently, McGraw sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about her new job, her new charges and a fairly new son who has changed her life.
Tell us about the work going on here at the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation.
There are two components. There is the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation itself, founded in the early 1990s by the late, great Jeanne Sauvé – first female governor-general of Canada, first female speaker of the House and the first woman from Quebec to be in a federal cabinet. The focus has always been promotion of international co-operation and national unity through international exchanges with young people. Originally, the foundation brought together young people from around the world and Canada to international conferences.
Moving through the 1990s, the foundation began concentrating more on quality than quantity. We brought in fewer people but worked with them in greater depth and for a longer time. That's how the Sauvé Scholars program was born.
Having just completed its fifth year, the program brings together up to 14 young professionals of great promise from around the world – young leaders really. Essentially, they spend the academic year here, living together. There is a strong affiliation with McGill in which the scholars are permitted to audit any course they want in any of the faculties. They are also assigned a mentor, a faculty member from McGill, depending on their area of interest or research.
So this is primarily an academic endeavour?
Not really – there is also a strong emphasis on professional development. Each scholar works on an individual project, which varies hugely in scope. This last cohort included a woman from Afghanistan who runs a community radio program. She did a lot of media training here to enhance her work back home, but she herself was the focus of a lot of media attention.
We also had a documentary filmmaker from Egypt; a young man from the Saguenay who leads a program called Mission Leadership Quebec that does election monitoring around the world; a man from India working on global governance issues and reform of the World Bank; and a woman from the Netherlands who was a former elected member of parliament at the provincial level who came to study the U.S. primaries.
A group that diverse must have some stimulating discussions around the dinner table.
These are great people. When you're going through an application process you never really know how things are going to work out. But the thing we seem to have got right year after year, is this mix of incredible people. On the one hand, yes, there are very serious discussions, but it is also a group that is very fun.
We start each year with a canoe trip away from the books and libraries so people can get to know each other outside the professional environment. It really is a wonderful mix of social interaction and high-level intellectual debate and discussions. We just had our closing dinner and we got a lot of feedback. The thing that came across most strongly was how much the scholars enjoyed the collegiality, the living together, the reasonable accommodation, if you will. It is a little microcosm of the world.
Obviously, this program will have an impact on the scholars' lives. But how important is this in the bigger picture?
It really goes back to the mandate that Mme. Sauvé set out, doesn't it? It is about fostering co-operation and international understanding.
Don't forget, these are young leaders who are creating networks. Later on, when they become leaders with real decision-making power in their countries, it will be important that they have had this experience of living together in a place with such diverse voices. Obviously, in this day and age anything that fosters international co-operation is very important.
It is also important for Montreal. This year, all the scholars were involved in a community project called Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE). They mentored young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom had a history of delinquency. We want them to reach out more and more to the broader Montreal community and to learn more about Canada and Quebec.
Tell us about Al Gore.
In the wake of his film Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore made a commitment to train 1,000 people to give a live adapted version of his slideshow on climate change. I was one of 21 Canadians selected to participate. Mr. Gore is a great teacher who has been committed to this issue for over 20 years. His passion is infectious. You have to make a commitment to give 10 presentations, I did 40. It basically took over my life last year [Laughing].
Where does that spirit of activism come from?
I think much of it has to do with the spirit of openness that my parents fostered. My family is from the U.S. and we came to Montreal for just a couple of years around the time of Expo. My parents fell in love with Quebec and the idea of living in a francophone culture. I think I developed an openness to the world as an anglophone who started going to French school at the age of five.
My parents were always very aware of global issues and we had lots of interesting discussions at the family table. And when I was nine we lived in France for a year, so you develop an awareness of other countries and cultures. [Laughing] Of course, my sister is a dancer in New York – same environment, very different paths.
Is there a symmetry to your path that saw you embark upon a cross-Canada lecture tour at 16; travel, work and live all over the world as a young adult; and now end up in your hometown in charge of a group of similarly talented young people?
Absolutely. I feel as though I've come full circle. That first experience with trying to effect change was extremely positive, so I am positively pre-disposed to these young scholars who are trying to make changes and do great things in their countries
One of the appealing aspects of this job was being able to work in Montreal and still be able to work with talented people from around the world. For a long time I thought I would have to work in New York or Washington or London. But here I am.
A little over two years ago, you gave birth to your son, Jack. How did that affect your life?
He changed everything. I was in the Canadian delegation for the 2005 UN Climate Conference in Montreal. Jack was born on the last day of the conference when Paul Martin and Bill Clinton were speaking. It was a hopeful time because we were on track to meet our Kyoto target.
When he was born, I looked back at the last 20 years of my life. Somewhere along the way I had lost my passion for these issues and it had really become an intellectual exercise. But after Jack was born, a lot of the issues I was involved in came back to me in a real way. And that's how I became involved with Al Gore because I wanted to get back to my roots and really connect with people again. You know, citizen engagement.
Sounds like you're the den mother to 14 such engaged citizens.
You know, if you're looking for a real antidote for all the problems in the world just sit down with a stack of the hundreds of Sauvé Scholars applications we get every year and read. In August, we have a woman coming from Burma – she's an educator and an organizer who is trying to make a difference despite the serious personal risks she faces. When you see these incredible young people – it really gives you hope.