Sally Armstrong has reported from war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and more.
She has written stories, books and documentaries about women, who otherwise would have been the ignored casualties of conflict or the overlooked heroes of making peace.
“I don’t talk about gentle things. If people want me to talk about my work, it’s not gentle. I talk about things that are difficult,” she says, unapologetically and with more than a hint of a challenge in her tone.
It’s a quality that has made her an indefatigable, award-winning human rights activist, journalist, documentary-maker, teacher, editor and author.
On June 14, Western conferred an honorary doctorate upon Armstrong during a morning ceremony, part of a spring convocation that also celebrates nearly 8,000 new Western graduates who join approximately 330,000 Western alumni from 160 countries.
Armstrong, named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2017, has visited Western before, spending two years here while her husband earned his business degree. And she has returned since then to share with students in literature, English studies and law the stories of women’s experiences during war, and why it matters.
“I’m thrilled about this (honorary doctorate). I have such a huge amount of respect for Western,” she said.
Armstrong quipped that her ties to Western go back to early adulthood when, during a summer job in Alberta, her roommate was the Mustangs’ head cheerleader. “She taught me Western’s fight song. To this day, I can sing every line of the fight song, and I can tell you it is the longest fight song in North America.”
Western is conferring honorary degrees upon 18 outstanding individuals during spring convocation.
Hope in humanity
War journalism is as emotionally taxing as it is hazardous, and Armstrong has spent most of a lifetime bringing to light stories that war-makers would prefer not to hear, read or talk about.
She is blunt about war’s causes: “It’s greedy people, seeking power. It’s the same in every war I cover.”
And even as she puts words and images to the indescribable brutality that men of war have inflicted upon women and children, she also writes of women’s determination to rebuild. To rid fields of landmines, and plant crops instead. To clear a path through rubble, and construct classrooms for their children.
“In them I see a tremendous resilience,” Armstrong said. Bearing witness to their strength helps leaven her fury at what they have suffered.
“I have hope. I have hope in humanity,” she said.
“Look at it this way: if someone told you five years ago that you could develop a vaccine in one year that could save the whole world from death, you would laugh them out of the room, wouldn’t you? But scientists did that, in one year: found a vaccine that we needed for coronavirus. We would never have believed that was possible – yet it happened.
“And it tells me that other good things can also happen.”
Part of her address to new graduates includes advice to believe in the impossible because that’s where answers can be found. “You are not powerless,” she told graduates.
“I think the world order as we know it is changing. From what I’ve been a witness to, I might be able to say it’s high time that it did.”
Teacher to author
Armstrong started her professional career as a physical education teacher, before she was invited to write about lifestyle and family matters for Canadian Living magazine, when it debuted in 1975. A decade later, she found herself in Liberia, writing about missionary Theresa Hicks’s work among impoverished people, soon after a coup in the West African nation.
That, and similar stories led her to become editor-in-chief of Homemakers magazine and travels to a dozen or more war-torn countries.
In those early years, she recalled, television news coverage was limited to depicting women and children as passive, voiceless figures in conflict zones. “They were showing women and children hanging around, being hurt, standing in line waiting for soup, watching their houses burn down. And I thought, ‘Where do we stand in all of this? I mean, do we care? Do we want to know more?”
It turned out, readers did want to know more; not about war strategies or politics, but about the stories of women and girls. Who they were as doctors and lawyers and teachers and mothers, what they experienced, what they thought, what became of them.
Armstrong has authored several books – including Ascent of Women and Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan – and has delivered numerous lectures internationally. She also spent the past two years ghostwriting two books, the latest of which she finished this month.
Armstrong said new graduates, and young people in general, stand well-equipped to mend the world’s ills. “Something has to change and this is the generation that is going to have to make the change. They have the education and even the experience with COVID to do it. I believe what they’re learning, how they’re interacting, and the demands they make of themselves and of the world make them the ones to take on this challenge.”