Professor Valerie Hébert's research isn't for the faint of heart. With the Holocaust, World War II, and the genocide in Rwanda as her interests, she delves into harrowing details reflective of the human condition.
"There's something about experiences of extremity that reveal what human nature is," she says. "It's in times of material deprivation, of emotional distress, and physical threat that we really get a glimpse of what we are as human beings."
Hébert hails from Montreal. She completed her PhD at the University of Toronto and her postdoctorate at York University. She joined Lakehead University's Orillia campus in 2010, and is an assistant professor in the History and Interdisciplinary Studies departments.
Her interest in history stems from her father's fascination with World War II. Books about it were strewn around the house and movies played on TV. Once Hébert started studying history, she could have veered in many directions – avenues with a lighter subject matter – but she didn't. She paired it with transitional justice instead.
"I'm always interested in connecting history to present debates," she says. "Why does it help us to know this? What can we do with this knowledge? I think that's why I started looking at responses to genocide and atrocity because it gives us some sense of how societies actually try to recover. How societies try to knit themselves back together."
It's been 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. Last February, Hébert was part of the plenary panel "Genocide-as-Atrocity: Problematic Hyperbole or Speaking the Unspeakable?" at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Her interest in Rwanda is in the relations between Hutus and Tutsis. "The survival of the country very much depends on these two groups being able to reconcile."
In her book Hitler's Generals on Trial: The Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, Hébert draws attention to how a change in the political landscape can alter a trial's rulings. Unlike the romanticized versions Hollywood presents, these trials were not open and shut cases. "Once the gavel falls, that's not the end of it," she says. "It requires an ongoing political commitment by groups outside of the judiciary to carry these judgments through."
Professor Hébert plans to expand her research to include the role photography plays in times of war and the ethics around these photographs. "These pictures are taken when the victim hasn't given consent. The person is on the verge of being killed or has been killed. It's an intimate, private moment – and the line between raising awareness of something and a sort of voyeuristic fascination is a fine one. How do we navigate that?"
Until now, when Hébert has taught students about the Holocaust, she hasn't shown them photographs of corpses. Given her new research, she may re-evaluate that position. "While still respecting the sensitivity of the subject matter, we must have the courage to face it all."
Lakehead Orillia's strong interdisciplinary approach gives Valerie Hébert many opportunities to connect her research with her teaching.
"There are days when I think I have the best job in the world because I get to talk about the things I find most interesting and share them with students," she says. "They leave the class and they're interested too – that's a real privilege."