Offshore Worlds

My primary research centres on cultural figurations of oceanic spaces and places in the contexts of escalating climate change and energy transition. I pursue these interests in the context of both individually and collaboratively-led projects.

My work to date has included an article in the Journal of Canadian Studies about images created by men who worked on the doomed Ocean Ranger rig; a chapter about the politics of energy sources in Newfoundland and Labrador in The Democracy Cookbook (edited by Alex Marland and Lisa Moore); and an essay in Asking the Big Questions: Reflections on a Post-Oil Sustainable Newfoundland and Labrador(edited by Rosemary Ommer, Barb Neis, and David Brake). I've also collaborated with Rachel Jekanowski, Danine Farquharson, and Dean Bavington on a research-creation project called Energy Amphitheatre, and with members of the Petrocultures Research Group in the writing of After Oil. However, my two most sustained projects are presently Oil Rigs and Islands and Cold Water Oil.

Oil Rigs and Islands

Islands and oil platforms are both important conduits for human and nonhuman place-making in the offshore world. They are, however, rarely considered together. My SSHRC Insight grant-funded project juxtaposes the complex and shifting cultural meanings of rigs and islands in order to illuminate significant contemporary changes in our species' relationship with the ocean. Oil Rigs and Islands is especially interested in the points at which the border between islands and the human-constructed, extractive infrastructure of the oil rig dissolves. It focuses on conceptual and material intersections between offshore oil platforms and islands at four specific sites in, respectively, the North Sea, the North Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Caspian Sea. Oil Rigs and Islands ultimate aims to bolster scholarly and public attention to the offshore at a crucial moment of anthropogenic-induced environmental change; identify emerging conceptions of ocean-located spaces; contribute to discussions about the futures of offshore energy and its associated infrastructures; and challenge and expand culturally predominant conceptions of islands.

I'm especially interested in how extraction on the Grand Banks, and in the North Atlantic more generally, is figured in sources as varied as public inquiry reports, literary texts, worker photographs, and corporate advertising.

Cold Water Oil

Dr. Danine Farquharson and I have collaborated on a number of petroculture-related projects over the last ten years, including publishing an essay on offshore oil rigs in Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy (edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel and Patricia Yaeger) and co-hosting the third international Petrocultures conference, Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore. Most recently, we have co-edited a collection of essays called Cold Water Oil: Offshore Petroleum Cultures for Routledge's Environmental Humanities series.

Cold Water Oil examines how societies conceive of fossil fuel extraction in the inhospitable but fragile waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. We argue that what happens offshore matters. Currently, over a quarter of the world’s oil and gas is produced from beneath the seas. The offshore petroleum industry is thus a crucial point of origin for global carbon emissions, and other environmental harms. Cold Water Oil illuminates ignored histories, influential contemporary narratives, and emerging energy and environmental futures. The volume centres on North Atlantic and Arctic regions; the continuing but often strongly contested pursuit of oil and gas in frigid, tumultuous, and environmentally sensitive seas enforces the lengths to which corporations and governments will go to maintain the centrality of fossil fuels. The book’s contributors focus on the cultural, social, and ecological implications of oil and gas extraction in the oceanic territories of Canada, Norway, the UK, Russia, the US, and the Iñupiat of Alaska at a time of profound global uncertainty. In conversation with the energy and environmental humanities, and critical ocean studies, Cold Water Oil considers a region central to debates about climate change and the planet’s future.

Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk

Over the last fifteen years or so, entrenched beliefs about the Indigenous Beothuk people of Newfoundland have begun to come under scrutiny.  Demands for a reassessment can be found in such diverse contexts as art, ethnomusicology, archaeology, literary studies, genetics, and history. In 2018 I published an edited collection with University of Toronto Press which gathers, interrogates and expands upon this innovative thinking. Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothukaims to definitively shift established scholarly and public perceptions about the supposedly extinct Beothuk. The book has been described by scholar Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation) as "a major contribution to Indigenous studies in this country."

Not the Last of Her Race: Shanawdithit, Truganini and Settler Culture Inquietudes

Tracing Ochre had its roots in an earlier comparative study of the aftermath of colonization in Tasmania and Newfoundland.

I received SSHRC funding to examine images in literature, film, art and popular culture have reflected and shaped perceptions of two women: the Beothuk Shanawdithit, who died in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1829, and Truganini, of the Neuonnne, who died in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1876. Both were hastily and incorrectly depicted by the settler cultures that had appropriated their homelands as the last of their respective races. This has had real, political implications for contemporary Indigenous people on the two islands. The persistence of Indigenous communities in both Newfoundland and Tasmania has frequently been obscured by the insistence on Shawnadithit’s and Truganini’s respective statuses as the “last.”

You can access links below to some of the articles that resulted from Not the Last of Her Race.

Reading Shanawdithit’s Drawings: Transcultural Texts in the North American Colonial World,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 14.3 (2013).

Art in the Bush: Romanticist Painting for Indigenous Audiences in Tasmania and Newfoundland.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 33.4 (2011): 333-351.

Memory against History: Figuring the Past in Cloud of Bone.English Studies in Canada 35.4 (2009): 53-69.


Fiona Polack

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000