A woman of reinvention

Sally Armstrong doesn’t just talk. She tells stories. And she has a million of them. There was that time in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan when a warlord stopped her, took her car, driver and translator, and ordered her into a jeep full of men armed with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades. What was Armstrong armed with? Throat lozenges. Using gestures, she explained what they were for and gave one to the warlord’s cohort, who had a scratchy throat. Three days later, after they’d kept her under guard and taken almost all her money, they kicked her out – but only after she agreed to hand over the rest of the lozenges.

Then there was the time in Sarajevo during the worst days of the war. From her hotel every night, she’d hear shelling from rocket-propelled grenades, but this night it sounded different. Unusually close. Relentless. Suddenly, there was a thunderous explosion – then silence. Immobilized with fear, her heart thudding against her ribs, she didn’t know whether to hide under the bed or flee the building. So what did she do? She lay down and went to sleep. Waking at dawn, she peeked out the door and saw that the room directly across the hall had been blown . She took a photo and ran.

But Armstrong’s favourite stories aren’t about herself at all. They’re the stories she tells about people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice – in particular, the forgotten women and children in zones of conflict. Through her magazine articles, Armstrong, 61, has woken the western world to stories of female bondage in Afghanistan, gang-raped women in Bosnia, street kids in Colombia, child prostitutes in Bangladesh, honour killings in the Middle East, girls with AIDS in Zambia, “untouchable” women in India. She’s also given us eyewitness accounts of abuses in our own country, whether in a polygamous cult in Bountiful, B.C., or at the old Prison For Women in Kingston, Ont. “I love ripping the top off of something that needs to be exposed,” she says.

Exposure not enough
Once it’s exposed, Armstrong doesn’t let it go. When she wrote about women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan – probably the first Western journalist to do so – she pushed Canadians to write letters demanding change, then persuaded former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to deliver the 9,000 letters to the United Nations. Dr. Sima Samar, who became Afghanistan’s minister of women’s affairs and is now that country’s chair of the Independent Human Rights Commission, is impressed by what she calls, in her halting English, Armstrong’s “full confidence on herself.”

“Sally came to Afghanistan during Taliban time, where it was really difficult,” Samar says. “Because of her story and the reaction of the people in Canada, the issue of Afghan women reached UN Security Council.” And the world woke up.

Armstrong’s stories have won her a slew of honours, including two Amnesty International media awards, three honorary doctorates and the Order of Canada. But her remarkable career journey is a story in itself, for she began her working life as – of all things – a high-school gym teacher. In fact, she seems to have stumbled into each new career – freelance writer, magazine editor, investigative journalist, book author, documentary filmmaker, war correspondent, human rights activist – with loads of enthusiasm and a monumental lack of formal training, reinventing herself with each new challenge.

Tragedy closer to home
Armstrong’s personal life, too, is the stuff of legend, featuring great love and great loss. She met her husband, Ross, at 17, enjoyed a fairy-tale relationship that lasted almost four decades, then suddenly lost him five years ago. It’s a tragic irony of Shakespearean proportions: while Sally had successfully dodged danger in the most wretched corners of the globe, Ross was killed in a car accident three minutes from their Oakville, Ont., home. She doesn’t talk about it above a whisper. “I was devastated,” she says. “I breathed grief in, I breathed it out, I wore it like a skin. I was just overwhelmed with sadness.” She looks away. “It darn nearly put me under.”

Recalling that horrific time, her eldest daughter, Heather, now 35, says, “I didn’t know my mother could ever be that sad. And it scared me a little bit. It was excruciating to see her in such pain.”

Next page: Work leads to safer ground

Armstrong shrouded herself in work, writing, speaking and travelling more than ever. She even went back to school to get a master’s degree, focusing on human rights for girls. Looking back, she says she was in shock for 18 months, then profoundly grieving for another two years. It was only last summer that she finally felt – not recovered, but okay.

And now she’s jumped into another new venture: a book of historical fiction about Charlotte Taylor, an 18th-century British immigrant to northern New Brunswick who had lovers, three husbands and numerous children, and to whom almost everyone from the Tabusintac area can trace their lineage – including Armstrong herself. Armstrong has never done historical fiction before, but that’s not stopping her. Before even beginning the book, she’d signed a deal with Random House and received a call about a potential six-part TV series. 

For the first half of her life, Armstrong didn’t have the slightest interest in writing. She’d desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer until the ballet mistress shattered that dream. She sat the gangly 14-year-old down and said bluntly, “Even if you made it into a company, you’d stick out like a sore thumb. They’d never find a man tall enough to dance with you.” Young Sally was almost six feet tall. Crushed, she switched her focus to basketball.

Growing up in Montreal, she wasn’t especially aware of issues of inequality. Her mother – quiet, dependable, enduring – was a nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital and part of a team that would later establish the first palliative care unit in Canada. She eventually received the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee medal for her nursing services. Her father was the sales director of a paper-box company, a fun-loving, hard-drinking Scot who used to leap about the kids’ bedrooms singing Gilbert and Sullivan ditties from his community theatre roles.

Is it because he’s a boy?
As the second of three girls, Armstrong felt completely secure – and then her baby brother was born. Even as a toddler, little Billy got to share his father’s Saturday treat of smoked kippers, something that his older sisters were never offered. “Why does he get it?” Armstrong wondered. “Is it because he’s a boy?” She didn’t especially want the fishy breakfast; she just wanted to be asked. She says now, “It’s a silly story, but that’s when I started to become aware that girls didn’t have the same opportunities as boys.”

In high school, Armstrong didn’t stand out. “She was not the one you’d say was most likely to succeed,” says Linda Armitage of Pointe-Claire, Que., a friend since grade eight. “She was your average student. She was a good athlete, not a star athlete.” Armstrong was neither a feminist nor a traditionalist; she was both president of the girls’ athletic association and a cheerleader.

Barely 17, she started university and met Ross the following week. A year older, he made a grand entrance into a second-floor freshman dance riding a beer-laden bicycle. Attracted to this man behaving badly, Armstrong immediately thought, “I want that one!”

Despite their mutual attraction, Armstrong had to chase him for two years. “And you know what?” she says. “I sometimes wonder if that’s why our marriage was so hot, because I never was sure I got him.” Throughout their marriage, she referred to him as “my boyfriend.” To everyone else, the devotion was clearly mutual. (People used to joke that if Ross had his way, he’d have a piece of Velcro with one side stuck to his pocket, the other to Sally.) At his funeral, a close friend wrote that Ross was ” gentle, kind and unabashed in his love for Sally. I think of Sally as a beautiful colourful kite, swooping, soaring, diving and ascending, always with Ross holding her securely and guiding her safely home.”

The couple spent the early years moving around southern Ontario because of Ross’s job as he worked his way up in an agricultural co-operative. (He eventually became president of United Molasses Canada.) “We moved eight times in 11 years,” Armstrong says. “In those days, the wife tagged along.” Meanwhile, Armstrong started having babies – Heather, Peter and Anna – and worked part-time as a gym teacher. She loved inspiring teenage girls to increase their self-esteem through physical fitness, long before the rest of the world had made this connection.

The Armstrongs used to socialize with Ross’s work colleagues, including the boss and his wife. “I was always blabbing – God forbid I should shut up – about women and fitness,” Armstrong says. The boss’s wife, Anna Hobbs, who gave lunch-hour sewing lessons on CBC Radio, had been asked to contribute articles to a new magazine, Canadian Living, along with Carol Ferguson, a recipe tester at Canada Packers. Hobbs passed along Armstrong’s name as a fitness writer, despite her utter lack of experience.

Next page: Learning the ropes

Armstrong’s work was unprofessional, unpolished and often unprintable. “Her stories didn’t flow, and it took so long to get to the point that I asked her, ‘Sally, are you writing everything out longhand?'” recalls Judy Brandow, the magazine’s former editor-in-chief. “She was. She’d write at night and she didn’t want to wake the kids up by using a typewriter.” Even after Armstrong had been writing articles for a year and a half, Canadian Living‘s publisher told her, “I think you should concentrate on your teaching because you don’t know how to do this.”

Armstrong wouldn’t quit. She could easily have become cynical; instead, she took to heart some of the homespun popular psychology that she was writing about in her articles and, corny as it sounded, applied it to her own life. As one of her old teachers used to say, “What do you mean, ‘I can’t’? Put ‘can’t’ in your pocket and try!” Armstrong rewrote and rewrote until her stories were acceptable enough to the editors, who rewrote them even more.

Real people, real drama
Even after all the rewriting her articles remained heavy with melodrama and dripping with sentiment. But they were about real people and real lives and real emotions, and readers loved them. Over the next decade, her stories evolved from “Leave Me Alone – I’m Stuffing the Turkey!” to special reports on youth suicide, child abuse and aging in Canada.

Armstrong always had a taste for adventure and risk, but her first real test of journalistic courage came when she heard about a Canadian nurse working in Liberia. She wanted to investigate, but it wasn’t the kind of story that Canadian Living covered. When a friend remarked, “You’ll never go to Liberia to do that story, not ever,” it was like a red flag to Armstrong. The very next day, she started bashing down barricades in editorial philosophy, magazine budgets and skeptical colleagues. Ten days later, she was on the plane. The story captured readers, and Armstrong’s appetite for foreign assignments was born.

In 1988, Armstrong was appointed editor-in-chief of Canadian Living’s sister publication, Homemaker’s. She’d had virtually no editing experience, and her spelling and grammar were erratic. (She was in her 40s before she realized that Arctic was spelled with a “c” in the middle.) But the publishers didn’t want an editor so much as a writer who could feature hu-man interest stories and make a strong personal connection with readers. Armstrong took her longtime editor Mary McIver with her. “My job right from the get-go was to fix Sally’s copy,” McIver says. “She always had great anecdotes and all the information, but she had a penchant for purple prose. You’d have to sort of wrestle her metaphors to the ground.”

Many in the magazine world were not initially impressed with Homemaker’s new editor. “The general buzz was that she was a complete ditz,” says veteran magazine writer and editor Don Obe, professor emeritus in the school of journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “A frivolous person doing a frivolous magazine.” Then, suddenly, Homemaker’s featured an eyewitness account of the first Canadian women troops in the front lines of the 1991 Gulf War, and there was a photo of Sally Armstrong suspended from a cable over the Persian Gulf as she made her way from one ship to another to get the story.

Following that would be Armstrong’s reports of the sick and dying in Rwanda, war-damaged families in Somalia and a searingly poignant profile of a Croatian widow whose brutalization by gang rape exposed atrocities of war that would otherwise have gone unwitnessed. All this from Armstrong the “ditz”? Obe says, “When she started travelling around the world doing stories about oppressed women, that reputation came to a screeching halt. Her stuff was good, and it mattered.”

A rut in the road
And then came Mila. Having written a magazine article on then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Armstrong was commissioned to write a biography of his wife, Mila. She kept her day job and wrote the manuscript at night, detailing Mila as wife, mother, hostess and clothes horse. When the much-anticipated book came out in 1992, reviews were universally scathing, calling the book “a shameless piece of puffery” and a “half-baked and sickeningly sweet piece of propaganda” that could bring on “a bad case of literary hypoglycemia.” Obe says it was a puzzling career move, as strange as if U.S. author and activist Susan Sontag had suddenly come out with a book about Britney Spears. He says, “It’s a shame Sally did that book. Her reputation took another dip.”

Armstrong says, “I was blistered by the Mila book. Blistered. I’d always felt I got in the back door of journalism because I was a gym teacher. I always wondered if I was acceptable. The Mila thing was a pretty loud message that I wasn’t.” She blames the Canadian public’s loathing of the Mulroney government for the scornful reviews but adds, “To tell you the truth, I was so horrified by the reviews I never opened the book again.”

Next page: Family life uplifts

While Armstrong’s professional reputation wavered, her home life stayed rock-solid. The modest house on a cul-de-sac in Oakville was always the place where everyone gathered, and you didn’t have to worry about taking your shoes off or saying the wrong thing. “All our friends loved hanging out at our house because we could really be ourselves with no fear of being judged,” says Armstrong’s son, Peter, 32, a CBC Radio reporter. “We’d have great, loud, lively conversations, and our parents always spoke with us as though we had something to say.”

His mother would often bring home people she’d met on her assignments, whether it was the whole Fleet Street gang of British reporters during the Queen’s Royal Tour or a family from Sarajevo whose son needed surgery after a land-mine accident.

Ironically, while her magazine featured pages of “Hearty Crowd-Pleasing Menus,” Armstrong rarely managed anything beyond takeout at home. “Pizza and wine was a favourite,” recalls daughter Heather with fondness. “There was never even a carrot in the fridge. When we were all away at university and we’d go home for visits, our mother would say, ‘Oh, I wish you could all stay another week.’ We’d say, ‘We’d love to, but we’d get scurvy!'”

Armstrong’s husband and children were unfailingly supportive as she went to hotspots around the globe. Her trips rarely lasted more than two weeks, and she kept in close touch with her family through faxes, e-mails and phone calls. 

The family knew that while Armstrong was courageous, she wasn’t reckless. But the trip to Colombia was particularly worrisome, as foreign journalists were frequently kidnapped. While Armstrong was on assignment there, Heather received an international call on her cellphone, which filled her with dread. “Oh, God, Mom’s been kidnapped!” she thought frantically. Answering the phone with shaking hands, she heard her mother’s voice. “Heather, this is very important,” Armstrong began. “I need you to take down a phone number.” Heather waited, too afraid to speak. “I need you to book a hair appointment for me for next Saturday morning.” Heather could have killed her.

Global stories lead to book
For her groundbreaking reports exposing the bondage of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban regime, Armstrong wore a chador, underwent house arrest by the Taliban and entered the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar to interview the governor shortly before he was killed in a bombing. Her first report, “Veiled Threat,” would lead to a book by the same name and, after she left Homemaker’s in 1999, gigs as a regular contributor of global stories to Chatelaine and Maclean’s magazines. She was named UNICEF’s special representative to Afghanistan.

Armstrong also made TV documentaries, including Daughters of Afghanistan. For that project, she travelled around the country with director Robin Benger and a cameraman. Before meeting her, Benger was expecting a “lipstick feminist” – someone who pays lip service to human rights issues but goes for shallow glamour. He was surprised. “I deal with a lot of on-camera ‘talent’ who, by and large, are pampered, overpaid pains in the ass,” Benger says. “But Sally is extraordinary. When we drove from Kabul to Bamiyan, where the Buddha statues were, it was a hellish journey where sometimes roads didn’t even exist. But Sally insisted on crumpling herself accordion-style in the back of this overloaded four-wheel-drive vehicle. She’s very, very tough.”

For Armstrong, that trip was quite a luxury, especially having other journalists as travel companions. Normally, she works alone, doing her own photography, hiding her notes under her shirt if she has to, paying a family to let her sleep on their floor. Lately, though, the lack of creature comforts is taking a toll. Last summer, on an assignment on female genital cutting in Senegal, she stayed in a village where everyone ate communally on the floor, 10 to a bowl. It wasn’t the probable parasites in the food that concerned her. It was how much her hips and knees would ache when she’d have to get up off the floor and back into a standing position.

Future challenges
Armstrong isn’t sure how many more foreign assignments she still has in her. Not only have the logistics of travel become far more complicated since 9/11 but her stories aren’t getting the play they used to. Whereas her special reports for Chatelaine used to be cover stories, they’re now buried in the back, among articles on throwing parties and removing stains. She admits that her stories have started sounding the same, because they are the same – the age-old story of oppression and inequality – and change isn’t happening fast enough for her.

Until the next foreign assignment seizes her interest, Armstrong is sticking close to home, churning out 1,000 words a day on her new book in her home office. She’ll visit her elderly mother almost every day, take care of her bladder-challenged Bichon Frisé, Muffin, and attend the United Church most Sundays (she’s not a bit religious but she likes the music). And she’ll continue to help people because that’s what you do.

Her old school friend Karen Foley of Montreal says that during her visit to Armstrong in January, a young homeless man approached the car. “Of course, Sally rolled down her window and gave him money,” Foley says. “But then she said, ‘It’s too cold for you to be outside without gloves. There’s a shelter three blocks away that will give you a pair. Do you know where that is?’ That’s Sally.”

Armstrong’s youngest daughter, Anna MacQuarrie, 29, says her mother would never brag about the impact she may have on people through her stories. “Mom always says she feels fortunate to be the messenger,” she says.

For, like all good storytellers, Armstrong knows that it’s not the storyteller who’s important. It’s the story.