Crude awakening

Beaton’s graphic-novel memoir chronicles two tough years working in Alberta oil sands

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In the Canadian indie comics landscape, Kate Beaton’s name has become as ubiquitous as, well… ducks. Best known for skewering historical and literary figures through a modern pop-culture lens in her best-selling comic series Hark! a Vagrant, the award-winning Cape Breton cartoonist now brings her acerbic wit to an altogether different kind of storytelling in Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. This stunning graphic memoir chronicles Beaton’s time working in the oil sands of Alberta during her early 20s, in an affecting coming-of-age narrative that delves into the larger sociopolitical issues at play in this contentious environment.

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In the Canadian indie comics landscape, Kate Beaton’s name has become as ubiquitous as, well… ducks. Best known for skewering historical and literary figures through a modern pop-culture lens in her best-selling comic series Hark! a Vagrant, the award-winning Cape Breton cartoonist now brings her acerbic wit to an altogether different kind of storytelling in Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. This stunning graphic memoir chronicles Beaton’s time working in the oil sands of Alberta during her early 20s, in an affecting coming-of-age narrative that delves into the larger sociopolitical issues at play in this contentious environment.

Beaton’s story about big machines and even bigger money is still, at its core, a very human story. She shows how environmental extraction, operating on stolen Indigenous land, is fueled by people who have, themselves, been extracted. “Cape Breton used to export fish, coal and steel; but in 2005, its main export is people,” Beaton notes, describing her homeland’s tradition of folks who leave to find better opportunities, herself having come to Fort McMurray as a newly minted arts grad looking to pay off her student loans.

Even so, the author is surprised to find coworkers in Alberta who are not only from the Atlantic, but from lots of other places too, all of whom left their families, other more fulfilling jobs and even other countries to work in the various camps, which she details at the beginning of each chapter with meticulous maps and portraits.

But just because the wages are favourable doesn’t mean that labour isn’t still being exploited.

And the climate is indeed oppressive, but the “rat cage” environment Beaton discovers there might be even more destructive. Slice-of-life graphic writing often relies on limited locations and mundane routines to drive the story, and the author uses her day-to-day experiences as a tool crib attendant to build an impeccable sense of place, often through casual conversations with a rotating cast of men in hard hats. Though Ducks is more serious than the author’s previous work, her comedic talent is still evident through these interactions with her coworkers.

Even more impressive is Beaton’s graphic attention to scale, evident as she peers out of a truck window at the vast landscapes, takes in the dazzling northern lights or stands beside a looming heavy hauler whose tires are taller than she is, emphasizing the smallness and vulnerability of not just herself, but of everyone there.

Though Beaton’s sense of place is undeniable, the lack of “home” is palpable too. Every camp is similar enough to prolong the tedium but different enough to remain alienating, especially to workers who have traded their lives at home for long shifts, longer winters and countless nights away from loved ones. As one coworker remarks, “it’s not the cold or the dark that will get you here, it’s the loneliness,” and Beaton does experience all of these things; her first, homesick Christmas there is especially heartbreaking. Although she highlights the few kindnesses others extend towards her (often accompanied by an East Coast accent), she is also further isolated as one of the few women labourers in camps full of men, whose shared camaraderie regularly comes at her expense.

Beaton does not excuse or forgive the misogyny and harassment she experiences, nor does she lose her underlying sense of compassion towards men whose mental health and sense of self have been deeply eroded. She lays plain how differently a situation can be perceived by multiple people, and how the much-discussed safety measures in place don’t always keep folks from slipping through the cracks. Mistakes still occur due to sheer exhaustion and lack of accountability, and any implemented personal protective equipment is only the bare minimum, whether it be physical gear, marginal employee assistance for distraught workers (which often leads to addiction) or, in one camp, Beaton’s flimsy dorm room doorknob that sometimes jiggles from the outside at night.

As camp realities continue to betray the looming Site Safety poster in one panel, she mutters to herself, “what we have here are all the things that lead to a serious incident.”

In Ducks, the true cost of living in the oil sands is anything but incidental, as Beaton shows how workers have been changed by life there, and how traces of her own experiences in the camps still linger indefinitely. This important book will no doubt continue to garner critical acclaim and inspire discussion, but audiences might also consider the personal cost incurred after sharing one’s experiences so unflinchingly on the page in such immersive, heartrending detail.

Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in contemporary narratives.

Kate Beaton will launch and discuss Ducks in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, hosted by Candida Rifkind and presented by McNally Robinson Booksellers. To purchase a ticket and copy of the book, see wfp.to/beaton.

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