Reconciliation science

One of the key lessons I’ve learned from being a member of CLEAR lab is that methods matter. Methods are ethics. What you do in research– who you talk to, what questions you ask, how you come up with those questions, how you write, what you write, what you hide from writing, who proofs it– impacts both the knowledge you make and the relationships around you. Methods can build good relationships or reproduce bad ones. Sometimes they’ll do both. Indigenous scholars have written about this for a long time.

Screen shot of Figure from Liboiron et al. 2021. Map prepared by Dr. Max Liboiron.

In a recent collaborative publication, CLEAR lab and co-authors provide baseline information on plastic pollution in surface waters in and around Inuit Nunangat. We also focus a lot on methods– our own, and the methods of others doing plastic pollution research in Inuit homelands. Doing so, we provide reflections and strategies for building reconciliation through science. Here’s the abstract:

Plastics are not only an environmental concern but also an issue of justice in the Arctic, particularly in Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands), as plastics and other contaminants that originate in the south accumulate in the north and have implications for Inuit sovereignty and wellness. This collaborative study finds an aver- age of 0.018 plastics/m2 in surface waters in two sites in the eastern Arctic (Tasiujarjuaq in Nunavut near Iqaluit and southwest Greenland offshore from Qaqortoq and Narsaq). A comparison with other studies shows this abundance of plastics is lesser than abundances reported further north in the Arctic, but greater than adjacent waters further south. However, within and across study areas at similar latitudes, there does not appear to be a significant difference in plastic abundance. Some characteristics of recovered plastics such as morphology and colour support local origins, while others support long range transport. Research moving forward should consider relative scales in spatial trends of plastic abundance. The discussion concludes by reflecting on the methods and findings in terms of their role in Inuit governance and research relationships, including elements of research personnel, permitting, categorization, measurement, and Abundance and types of plastic pollution in surface waters in the Eastern Arctic (Inuit Nunangat) and the case for reconciliation science reporting findings. Our goal is to provide insights of where we, as scientists, may choose to intentionally move our scientific work towards reconciliation while we produce knowledge about environmental pollution in Inuit Nunangat and the Arctic broadly.

Reconciliation will fall short in a lot of ways– it’s not Landback (Liboiron et al. 2021). Instead, it aims to reconcile dominant scientific practices with the aims and goals of Indigenous nations. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization of Canada, has provided guidelines to researchers to improve their relationships with Inuit.

The paper’s approach is informing other projects I’m working on, including a literature review on wildfire science and climate change with colleagues at the Prince Albert Grand Council. With a focus on methods, we ask how wildfire science can be changed to build new, better, relationships with First Nations people on their homelands– ones that go beyond reconciliation. What this looks like will transform the methods of wildfire science, changing what it knows, considers, or takes for granted in northern Saskatchewan.


Liboiron, Max., Zahara, Alex., Hawkins, Kaitlyn., Crespo, Christina., Neves, Bárbara., Wareham-Hayes, Vonda., Edinger, Evan., Muise, Charlotte., Walzak, Mary Jane., Chidley, Jillian., Mills, Carley., Watwood, Lauren., Arif, Hridisha., Earles, Elise., Pjiogge, Liz., Shirley, Jamal., Jacobs, Jesse., McCarney, Paul., & Charron, Louis. (2021). Abundance and types of plastic pollution in surface waters in the Eastern Arctic (Inuit Nunangat) and the case for reconciliation science’. Science of the Total Environment, 782. DOI: 0.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.146809

CFP: The Social World of Wildfires

Call for Proposals: Special Session, Canadian Association of Geographers Annual Meeting. 25-29 May 2020, University of Victoria

The social world of wildfires in Canada

Co-organizers: Heidi Walker (PhD Candidate, University of Saskatchewan) and Alex Zahara (PhD Candidate, Memorial University of Newfoundland)

Wildfire Detection Equipment in Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo: Alex Zahara 2018.


Wildfires are not just ecological processes– they are also profoundly social. In recent years, major wildfire events have deeply affected communities and governments worldwide, including Australia, the United States, and Canada. As anthropogenic climate change contributes to the increasingly unpredictable and dynamic nature of such hazards, there is a growing need to understand how the social dimensions of wildfires and their management impact the wellbeing of forests and the communities living with and supported by them. In Canada, wildfire—and responses to wildfire—are shaped by, and become layered onto, existing local and regional political, economic, and social landscapes. Governance structures, wildfire policy and management, ongoing settler colonialism, and gendered norms and expectations intersect in complex ways to result in diverse experiences of, and responses to, wildfire within and across communities of expertise. Without attention to such issues, adaptation measures and wildfire management strategies risk reinforcing existing social inequalities at the local level. This session brings together a variety of social science perspectives (e.g. hazards research, human dimensions of wildfire, Science and Technology Studies, more-than-human geography, political ecology, Indigenous studies) and case studies to advance our understanding of complex social dimensions of wildfire in Canada. In doing so, it aims to identify emerging strategies for inclusive, justice-oriented governance and wildfire management as governments and communities continue to live with, and plan for, fire in the future

DEADLINE EXTENDED: 15 March 2020, submit via conference portal.

Pollution, Toxicity and Reparative Environmental Histories

Special Pre-Conference Discussion Panel American Society for Environmental History (RSVP Only), 3:00-4:30pm, 25 March 2020, The Pinnacle room, 26th Floor, Delta Hotel, Ottawa

Pollution, Toxicity and Reparative Environmental Histories: A discussion

Co-organizers: The Northern Exposures research team is Drs. Arn Keeling (Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland), Lianne Leddy (Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier), Matthew Farish (Associate Professor, University of Toronto), Liza Piper (Associate Professor, University of Alberta), & Stephen Bocking (Professor, Trent University)



There are over 50 presentations slated for this year’s ASEH conference dealing with themes related to pollution, toxicity, and contaminants. Clearly, scholarly and public interest in questions of “the arts of living on a damaged planet” is high, as is interest in historical, theoretical, and practical approaches to repair, remediation, and restoration. In conjunction with the Northern Exposures project workshop and the Symposium on Place-based Reparative Environmental Histories, we invite ASEH participants to join members of the Northern Exposures project team as we reflect on emerging directions in environmental histories and geographies of waste, discards, and toxicity, as well as their reparative and justice dimensions. Through this interactive session, we hope to spark discussion, reflection, and potential collaboration amongst the many presenters and participants with interests in these questions, before joining us for the conference opening reception.

Space in this pre-conference event is limited.

Please RSVP to Alex Zahara ( by 1 March 2020 to confirm your attendance.

Fire in an elemental Anthropocene

How an Anthropocene is conceptualized (or not) matters insofar as it can help to understand the root causes and distributed effects of wide-scale, uneven, environmental disruptions. That is, the concept of the Anthropocene can help think about why and how factors like climate change and pollution act in uneven, often non-consensual ways, and how these issues might be addressed. What’s causing environmental disruption? Is it capitalism? Settler colonialism? Heterosexism? Anti-blackness? Combinations of each?

One way (among others) to understand the anthropocene is to start by thinking about it topically. In the new special issue ‘An elemental Anthropocene’ in Cultural Studies Review (edited by Timothy Neale, Will Smith, and Alison Kenner), anthropocenes are interrogated via different ‘elemental’ starting points, from water to air to fire and land. The different papers in the collection show how issues that characterize an anthropocene (think floods, wildfires, toxic pollution in cities) are differentially produced and felt based on the larger structures, noted above.

Wildfire smoke in Saskatoon, Sasktachewan. Photo: A. Zahara 2018,

In our new paper,‘An Eternal Flame: The Elemental Governance of Wildfires pasts, presents, and futures’, Timothy Neale, Will Smith and I look at the ways in which fire– and wildfire in particular– has come to shape lives and ecologies in three continents: Canada, Australia and the Philippines. We show that wildfires in particular have been shaped through settler colonial relations to land as well as capitalist forestry endeavors. Popular solutions for dealing wildfires (risk and emergency management practices, the protection of particular ‘values at risk’, the harvesting of carbon credits), not surprisingly, continue to tap into these logics. While these politics may be understood locally, they often go uninterrogated by environmental managers. To read more, check out the paper here.

Burned trees in the Boreal Forest. Photo: A. Zahara

All the papers in the collection are open access and stem from the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, held at the Alfred Deakin Institute. The paper is part of ongoing collaborations stemming from my time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute, working with Dr. Tim Neale and Dr. Emma Kowal in 2018.

Full paper citation: Neale, Timothy., Zahara, Alex., and Will Smith. (2019) An eternal flame: the elemental governance of wildfire’s pasts, presents and futures. Cultural Studies Review, 25(2): 115-134.

Risk, chemicals, and justice

How ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are defined is always political. That is, these categories do not exist outside in the world but are defined by particular groups of people– scientists, government regulatory boards, public health authorities– who always have preconceived and culturally informed ideas about what it means to be healthy or ‘at risk’.

Inevitably toxic
Inevitably Toxic (2018) Edited by Brinda Sarathy, Vivien Hamilton., & Janet F. Brodie. University of Pittsburgh Press.

That categories of risk and health are not inevitable but historically and socially produced is the subject of Inevitably Toxic: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure and Expertise a new edited collection out of University of Pittsburgh press. The collection contains essays on a range of topics from x-rays to nuclear waste storage to pesticide use and oil drilling.

It also includes an essay I wrote as part of my previous research on waste in Arctic Canada.  My chapter ‘On Sovereignty, Deficits and Dump Fires: Risk Governance in an Arctic ‘Dumpcano” discusses the controversy of a summer-long dump fire in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Public protests, led by Inuit, reframed what would otherwise be seen as a single, exceptional, catastrophic event, as an effect of ongoing settler colonialism in Nunavut Territory. You can read the chapter, here.

For further reading about contamination, research, and expertise, I’ve also written the following short pieces:

sperm egg plants
From ‘Queering Chemicals’. Image of plants titled ‘Sperm, Egg, Fertilization, Sex Cell‘ Creative Commons Zero – CC0 1.0, Public Domain.


Discard Studies is Back!

In the last 5 years, I’ve gone from working as a research technician in a toxicology lab, to conducting ethnographic research about waste, to doing more cross-disciplinary work with CLEAR and throughout my PhD. During all this time, Discard Studies has been an incredible resource for keeping up-to-date on the latest theory, texts, and conferences in the field. Its also helped my transition across disciplines and introduced me (virtually or otherwise!) to a community of researchers, journalists and activists interested in waste and pollution. I’m incredibly grateful for the blog and the tremendous work that’s been put into it by long-term editor Dr. Max Liboiron and founder Dr. Robin Nagle.


On September 1st, Discard Studies officially went live with the latest iteration of the blog (check out the opening post, here!). Some changes to the site include a new public interface, a Twitter account (!), and a new post series called The Dirt (featuring latest texts, journals, calls for proposals, and research positions in the field). In addition to this, I’m super excited to be joining the Discard Studies editorial team, along with Dr. Josh Lepawsky. I’m also incredibly appreciative that as a graduate student, this work will be a paid position. This is rarely the case for graduate student editor positions, which tend to perpetuate a culture unpaid labour for junior and precarious scholars.

Some previous Discard Studies posts that I’ve written, include:


Repair and maintenance are a part of how systems of value are built and maintained. Photo taken on 2 March 2002. From Wikimedia Commons.

If you would like to support Discard Studies blog, please consider becoming a patron.

Queer Science has Ethics; Silver Hake (and many fish!) Don’t Eat Plastic

Since starting my PhD in 2016, one of my favourite groups I’ve been a part of has been the Queer Science Reading Group. The group is comprised of a fantastic bunch of undergrads, graduate students, staff, and faculty from fields spanning anatomy and cell biology to geography to gender studies to medicine. We meet twice a month, drink tea, and learn about queer theory. In a, dare I say it, ~fabulous~ interview with Lady Science, group members Elise Earles (she/her) and I talk about what we’ve learned so far through the Queer Science Reading Group.  Topics covered include doing queer placed-based science in Newfoundland, opportunities and incommensurabilities between settler and Indigenous queer activism, queer food webs, queer quant, our reading list, and more. Check out the interview, here:  “Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group’. The group will start up again in a new iteration this January. E-mail me if you’d like to join!

We’re making a manifesto! Preliminary thoughts from members Elise, Nic, Taylor, Ignace, Jackie, Caitlynn, Marie, and I.  Photo: Alex Zahara

Another CLEAR project that was recently published is the study, A zero percent plastic ingestion rate by silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis) from the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada’, which is out now in Marine Pollution Bulletin. After not finding any plastics in silver hake off the coast of Newfoundland, we compared our results to the literature. We found that 41% of all recorded plastic ingestion rates for fish reported a value of zero.  Despite the ubiquity of plastics in the ocean, this is not surprising given that where pollution goes, who and what it effects is always unevenly distributed (i.e. in this case, an effect of where plastics are located, how they float, where fish swim, what fish like to eat).  Given low sample sizes reported in the literature, we are unable to determine what fish are most effected by plastic pollution– what is necessary for justice-based interventions. The key takeaways of the paper: (1) studies with higher sample sizes for a single fish type are important for understanding the effects of plastic pollution; and (2) report your null results!

A rainbow of microplastics on Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i. Photo: Alex Zahara, 2012.

You can read more about the study and it’s implications in the piece, ‘Not All Marine Fish Eat Plastics’ published on the Conversation by co-author Dr. Max Liboiron.

Full Citations:

Elise Earls & Alex Zahara (interviewer, KJ Shephard) (2018).  “Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group’. Lady Science.

F. Liboiron, J. Ammendolia., J. Saturno., J. Melvin., A. Zahara., N. Richard., and M. Liboiron. (2018). A zero percent plastic ingestion rate by silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis) from the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Marine Pollution Bulletin 131: 267-275.



New Paper: Equity in Authorship Order

As an interdiscplinary researcher studying equity and justice issues, one of my key interests is incorporating lessons learned through social science theory into scientific practices. In our new paper, published in Catalyst: Journal of Feminist Theory and Technoscience, members of Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), discuss how we incorporate feminist values into consensus-based decision-making about authorship order. Factors we consider when deciding authorship order include: multiple types of labour (ideation, care work, data entry), social location (class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities), and need (point in career, previous instances of data theft, and career trajectories, and more). Abstract below:

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 4.22.00 PM
Lab members during conversation about author equity, 2016. Photograph by CLEAR photographer-in-residence Bojan Fürst.

Liboiron et al. (2017). Equity in Author Order: A Feminist Laboratory’s Approach. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3: 1-17.

Author order is crucial; it is the currency of academia. Within STEM disciplines, women and junior researchers–those who are the primary constituents of our lab– consistently receive less credit for equal work. Our Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) is a feminist marine science laboratory at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Recognizing that the stakes are high for CLEAR members, we have developed an approach to author order that emphasizes process and equity rather than system and equality. Our process is premised on: 1) deciding author order by consensus; 2) valuing care work and other forms of labour that are usually left out of scientific value systems; and 3) taking intersectional social standing into account.  Although CLEAR’s approach differs from others’, we take author order seriously as a compromised but dominant structure within science we must contend with. That is, rather than attempt to circumvent author order, we stay with the trouble. This article outlines this process.

Studying Wildfire Management: Northern Exposures Meeting + CAG

This May, I pre-empted my Summer field season by testing out my proposed dissertation research at a couple of conferences. For my PhD fieldwork, I’ve decided to (a la an ethnographic refusal) examine a contamination issue closer to my home.

The Canadian military in Prince Albert, SK, during wildfire evacuations in 2015.

In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where I’m from, wildfires are a major source of smoke contamination, and– as much research has pointed out– often result in major displacement issues. So far, much of the research on wildfires has focused on the experiences of evacuated communities. This research has been in human dimensions and medical anthropology, and is concerned about how the North’s primarily Indigenous residents encounter wildfires and evacuations, focusing on the ways in which Northern life and culture becomes disrupted. For my research, I’ll be taking up Eve Tuck’s suggestion of ‘studying up’: I’ll be examining the history, culture and politics of wildfire management in Saskatchewan, focusing on how particular ideas of ‘nature’, ‘community’, ‘family’ and ‘wellbeing’ have come to be embedded in wildfire science and technologies. In doing so, I hope to keep open the possibility that wildfires can be managed differently, and in ways that foreground community self-determination and definitions of wellbeing.

This proposed research was first presented at the Northern Exposures workshop and meeting in Edmonton, May 8-9th. The meeting was convened by my supervisor, Dr. Arn Keeling and involved discussions with long-term northern activists and researchers about the politics and ethics of doing research in northern communities. We talked about how and in what instances this type of research should be done (there are many instances in which it shouldn’t), how researchers make themselves accountable and to whom (e.g. to community determined deadlines, not to SSHRC).

Burned trees near La Ronge, SK. Photo: A. Zahara 2017

My proposal on wildfires was also presented in poster form at the Canadian Association of Geographers in Toronto, ON May 28-June 3rd.

Toxic Expertise Workshop

Very much looking forward presenting at the ‘Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science’  workshop held at the University of Warwick, May 3rd and 4th, 2017. The workshop is part of the Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry research project, led by Dr. Alice Mah. The project focuses on debates arising between ‘experts’ and supposed ‘non-experts’ about contaminant-related issues.

The paper I’ll be presenting is co-written with Dr. Max Liboiron, and examines the ways in which our lab, Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), is incorporating the concept of ‘ethnographic refusal’ into citizen science. CLEAR is an STS-informed, feminist and justice-based marine science lab, directed by Dr. Liboiron, that examines plastic pollution.  Abstract below.

Cod is an important local food that was examined by CLEAR as part of a citizen science research project on marine plastics. Photo by Bojan Furst, taken during the Newfoundland cod fishery.


Refusal in Citizen science: A Decolonial, Ethical Approach to Data Circulation (or Not)

Ethnographic refusal is an methodological approach originating in anthropology about not disclosing data. At first, settler anthropologists saw refusing to disclose all information as an ethical problem as the right to know was paramount. Over time, Indigenous scholars have rearticulated refusal as a decolonial and deeply ethical method; settler researchers and audiences should not be able to access all information about Indigenous and other groups, and that the refusal to recount some information so it remains locally controlled and related is sometimes the more ethical stance. In this paper, we explore how our citizen science laboratory (Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, or CLEAR) has brought ethnographic refusal and people’s right to refuse into the natural sciences through a case of studying plastic pollution in sustenance food webs in Newfoundland, Canada. Refusal and other decolonizing methods are under-explored in citizen science literature and practices, and offer new avenues through which to think about methodologies and ethics for environmental justice premised on the idea that free and open circulation of contamination data is not inherently good.