Lasting impressions

Children's author Sharon McKay on being a Canadian war artist.

Children's author Sharon McKay talks about being a Canadian war artist

Children's author Sharon McKay spent time with Canadian troops in Afghanistan as research for an upcoming book. ((Sharon McKay))

Sharon McKay is a children's writer who has tackled subjects such as child soldiers in Africa and the Holocaust. In addition to that, she's a Canadian war artist, part of the long-standing tradition of citizens who are sent to watch Canadian troops in action. On a recent trip to Afghanistan, McKay also realized that she was, in her own words, a "stupid civilian."

'I'm shocked at how good our army really is. I think I was under the impression that we are peacekeepers, we're gentler people. We're as tough as they come.'—Sharon McKay

After a two-week trip to Camp Mirage and "KAF," as the Canadian base at Kandahar Airfield is known, McKay says she came home with a completely changed view of military life.

"Canada does such an incredibly good job in their discipline," she says in a recent interview. "I'm shocked at how good our army really is. I think I was under the impression that we are peacekeepers, we're gentler people. We're as tough as they come."

McKay is the author of Charlie Wilcox, about a Newfoundland boy during the First World War; War Brothers, about child soldiers in Sierra Leone; and Esther, about an 18th century Jewish girl living in New France. McKay was accepted last year under Canada's War Artist Program, an institution that has fostered talents of such as painters Fred Varley and Alex Colville. The current incarnation of the program allows civilians to accompany Canadian soldiers in times of peacekeeping and in times of war. In addition to painters and photographers, it accepts sculptors and novelists.

McKay says it was sometimes a shock for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan to find they were babysitting a children's writer. "When you say to someone, 'I'm a war artist,' when you say, 'I'm a children's writer,' you can almost see their heads spinning around. It's like. 'What the hell you going to write about?'" McKay recounts. "They can't get their heads around it. I came up against a little bit of resentment from the younger soldiers and I can see their point. We're coming in like it's Disneyland. [But] this is their lives."

McKay was able to meet Aghan children, albeit under the supervision of Canadian troops. ((Sharon McKay))

McKay is planning a novel that concerns Afghan girls who are forced to leave their country. She says she wants to consult with Muslim groups, to get the cultural side of the tale right. But the reason McKay applied to the program is because she foresees her characters crossing paths with the Canadian military.

"I have four girls [in the story] — each one in their lives will come to a dead end, where they have to make a choice," she says. One of the girls will be offered military assistance to Britain, where she was born, but she'll turn it down. "She will stay with her friends and the three of them will try to make it over the mountains to Pakistan on their own," McKay says.

McKay's introduction to military life began at Camp Mirage, a base well back of operations. There, she had a lot of time on her hands. But a ramp ceremony one day for a fallen soldier was a sharp reminder that she was headed towards a war zone. The service started on the airfield at two in the morning.

"You have this weird silence; no one is coming in or out. The airplanes are all around you and they're all black, big Hercules. And everybody turns up – the Australians, everybody is there. So you could have 250 people. And it's all ritualized right down to the last word, where you stand.

"We walked out to the field. It was dead still and you could hear a piper coming from afar and a van pulls up and they carry the body, the fallen. Then you hear a minister, then you hear really, really loudly, 'Soldiers, salute your comrade.' You can actually hear the hands going up and breaking the air. It's that fast. Of course, I'm thinking of the [dead soldier's] mother back home," McKay says.

From there, McKay was sent to Kandahar Airfield, which she describes as "huge" and equipped with stores, recreational facilities and residences. McKay chafed against the long military briefings, the heavy equipment and the rules that govern military life. She had to wear 30 pounds of chest protection, as well as a heavy backpack; the physical effort took some getting used to. "Here's the thing: No one helps you. You carry everything yourself," she says. "None of this is pretty, a 56-year-old running around carrying this."

McKay was given many privileges, including the opportunity to go to a forward operations base, the chance to ride in a tank and go on a foot patrol. That was where she was able to meet Afghan children. It was not as free as she might have wished, McKay says, in part because of the strict rules that govern foot patrols.

"What they do is they say, 'We can stop at a certain area.' When they walk, [there is] about 20 paces between us in the line – that's so if you step on a bomb, just one person dies. What they do is, when I'm allowed to stop and talk to children, they form a diamond [with a soldier on each corner]. And I'm allowed to stop in the middle," she said.

"I don't need a translator with kids. For the girls who were hiding [behind their hands], I played peek-a-boo. I also have blond hair, so I pulled my hair out and one girl pulled out her hair and we put our hair together. There's ways to communicate with children without language, and if I have time with kids, I take a piece of paper and make games."

McKay admits to being shocked by the dirt and poor sanitary facilities of the Afghan villages, as well as by the piles of rusting Russian ordnance left on the ground. She says that the children are unfazed by the sight of uniformed soldiers.

"Imagine a big man, imagine putting body armour on this big man, imagine putting a big vest with stuff, then put on his back maybe a radio and put on his helmet, lights and all sorts of headsets, and then he's got his big gun, then he's got side armour. And they're handing out candy. It's ridiculous and incredibly Canadian and sweet at the same time. These kids aren't the least bit afraid."

Canada's War Artist Program allows civilians to accompany Canadian soldiers in the field of action. ((Sharon McKay))

McKay admits she posed constant questions of Canadian soldiers – and had to learn what not to ask. "I learned how not to ask stupid questions fast. I learned not to ask questions like, 'Should we be here?' First of all, they're here, so why are you even asking that?"

What she came away with, besides fodder for her book, was an "amazing respect" for the discipline and strength of character she saw in the Canadian military. "Never judge a soldier; you don't know what you're going to get. They're smart, they are disciplined, they have university degrees, they're older [than U.S. military recruits]," she says.

McKay was surprised by her level of comfort with military life – including the omnipresence of guns – in two short weeks. Another surprise was the role of women, including other grandmothers in the Canadian military.

"I saw this tank coming up the hill, and there was nothing that says this is a woman in the tank. She comes roaring up and throws her stuff off and she looks like a movie star. The iconic image right now of the war is the ramp ceremony, but we may come out of this war with a new image, and that is [of] the woman as a battle soldier. It wasn't sexy — it was powerful. She was powerful and strong and straightforward and saying 'This is my place in the world.'"

Susan Noakes is an arts news writer for CBCNews.ca.


Susan Noakes

Senior writer and editor

Susan Noakes is a senior writer and news editor with CBC News. She spent five years at newspapers in Hong Kong and has worked for the Toronto Star and Asian Wall Street Journal. At CBC, she has covered arts, science and business.