Linking history and advocacy

Linking history and advocacy

Bishop’s is an ideal environment for people with passions. Dr. David Webster, a professor in the History department, has watched his students explore their interests (and discover new ones) since he first stepped into a Bishop’s classroom back in 2011.

“That’s one of the things I like the most about the student experience here at Bishop’s,” he says. “Everyone cares about something.”

Dr. Webster’s own passion project focuses on the interactions between Canada and Southeast Asia, which colours his teachings and research. He’s penned one book about the history of Canadian relations with Indonesia, and is currently working on a second volume about Canadian policy on East Timor, which was invaded and occupied by Indonesia from 1975 until 1999.

But his interest in the region extends beyond the confines of his office and classroom.

“I became involved in the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN) as an undergraduate student in the 1980s, and continued to be involved with it for the next 12 to 15 years,” he explains. “ETAN is a human rights group dedicated to human rights in East Timor, which was a colony of the Indonesian army when Indonesia was a military dictatorship.” East Timor finally gained its independence in 1989.

The government of East Timor recently recognized ETAN’s efforts by bestowing upon the group the Order of Timor-Leste, the country’s highest honour. Dr. Webster received the medal on ETAN’s behalf, and was struck by how unlikely that moment would have seemed when he first started doing advocacy work for the organization.

“During the award ceremony, I saw the president of East Timor who would have been one of those guerrilla warriors, fighting in the mountains,” he recalls. “He would have received the messages from foreign governments like Canada saying that independence could not be achieved. And yet there I was, on the 13th anniversary of the restoration of independence, and realized that in fact it’s not impossible. It can be accomplished.”

He continues: “It was a sign that when you take on an issue that has long odds of succeeding, there is no such thing as a lost cause. This one looked hopeless but they eventually succeeded.”

Dr. Webster has brought these significant lessons of East Timor’s history into his research. He is currently working on a project about truth commissions in Indonesia and East Timor, for which two students are working as research assistants. The work accomplished during the Fall 2015 semester means that Dr. Webster will be teaching a course on those truth commissions during the Winter 2016 semester. “I offered this course before, but this time the course will be so much richer because of the research we have conducted,” he says.

“My goal is to teach my students that Canada is involved in events happening in countries they may have never heard about, like East Timor,” he notes. “It’s important to understand that human rights are not confined by borders, and to relate history to contemporary affairs.”

Please find Dr. Webster’s full list of publications and research activities online.