You may know Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton from her wildly popular, pioneering web comic Hark! A Vagrant, but before that success, she was another young person trying to pay off her substantial student loans. Unable to find gainful employment in her beloved Nova Scotia, Kate headed west to the oil boom in Alberta. She chronicles her resulting experiences of isolation, misogyny, and environmental extraction with intimate detail and wry humor in her new graphic narrative Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. Orion’s special projects editor Katie Yale sat down with Kate to discuss the book’s traumas and triumphs.
Katie Yale: Early in the book, I was struck by this particular passage about Nova Scotia: “I need to tell you this—there is no knowing Cape Breton without knowing how deeply ingrained two diametrically opposed experiences are: A deep love for home, and the knowledge of how frequently we have to leave it to find work somewhere else. This push and pull defines us. It’s all over our music, our literature, our art, and our understanding of our place in the world.” Throughout the book, you often ponder notions of home and not home. This idea that people don’t actually live in the camps, but mostly just endure them, existing in a kind of untethered state, and that in that loneliness, boredom, and separation from their actual homes, these places “create what didn’t exist there before.” They often bring out the ugliness in humans. Why, or how, do you think some people are able to hold on to themselves, to home, to their humanity, better than others?
Kate Beaton: I don’t know the answer to that. Some people were fine there. We are all built differently. The ones I found who were the most well adjusted and happy there were actually some of the older men who were pretty well retired, whose families had already grown and who came out there and were making money for the first time in their lives. They were happy to work all day and come back to their rooms and watch a little television and have a meal made for them and be financially secure and save money for the first time, ever. They considered the place a godsend. Anyone unhappy to work all day and come back to a little room and sleep and do it over again for days on end could go in any direction of unhappiness.
KY: I notice that you live in Cape Breton now. Was there any question you’d return and settle there as an adult?
KB: I didn’t think I would be here. Being able to work “from anywhere” with comics let me be here. My sister getting ill with cancer brought me here to stay. I never pictured myself here, but I also never pictured myself anywhere else, if that makes sense. It was always a big question mark—but it makes sense that I am here, now.
On Violence on Women and the Land
KY: We know exploitation and violence against the land usually goes hand in hand with violence against other species, other humans, and most of all, women (and perhaps most especially Indigenous women). I’d ask if you thought the scene in Alberta was any better today, but given the ongoing collateral violence coming out of the man camps in the Dakotas and other places like them, I think it’s clear the fuel industry has a long way to go. I know Ducks is just one woman’s experience, but do you see any solutions or cause for hope of reform for this toxic formula?
KB: This, I don’t know. I see improvements in places, but I am very far away from the oil sands now, and you would have to be there to know; you’d really have to be in those work environments to know how those situations work out today. There are always solutions, but it is a culture shift that is needed, and perhaps we are in one—it certainly feels like there is more conversation and awareness of violence against women now than there was when I was younger. But I do not know how these shifts are affecting someone working, say, where I worked, today.
KY: The oil sand sites, at least at the time you were there, had an average fifty-to-one ratio between men and women. The daily sexual harassment, gendered violence, othering, and trauma you endured, and its psychological toll, were tough to read. Yet you write and draw with such poignancy and restraint, such grace, even, conveying so much in small expressions, details, and few words. I’m haunted by the final frames of the book. Was this a very deliberate decision, or was this just you being you as an artist and human?
KB: It was actually something that I pasted in that was not the end of the book but part of the ending, and my editor/publisher said, “Oh, are these the last pages? Perfect, a great ending.” And I looked at them again and thought, Oh yes, I agree. Haha. So it wasn’t so deliberate, but those pages were always going to be in there.
KY: The true villain of the story is capitalism. We’re constantly seeing this refrain of “at least you’re getting paid,” or “filling your pockets,” or getting that double overtime, that holiday pay, those extra night shifts . . . “making that good money.” Everyone is there for the same reason: to make fast money. And that is totally understandable. People have families to care for, debts to pay, futures to build. A lot of these guys have hopped between one extractive industry to the next, following booms—fishing, coal mining, steel plants—and there is a numbness and sense of loss there, too. As the book continues, you start wrestling more with the environmental damage these operations cause, with being a cog in the machine. But of course (at least in the U.S. and Canada), we’re all complicit in this system, no matter how far we are from the oil sands. Nearly fifteen years later, what sticks with you most about your experience in relation to capitalism and the environment?
KB: I think it’s that, out there, it was so in your face what you were doing. The wilderness you were encroaching on was right there; you were putting the shovels in the ground, putting the smoke in the air, breathing it in. Taking the paycheck. It’s easy to see or say that your hands are dirty here. But outside of the oil sands, I go and I fill my car with gas, and it’s the same thing, isn’t it? On a beautiful sunny day, I have to drive my toddler to day care and I have to get gas, and isn’t this the same gas, in the winter—we live in an old farmhouse—we heat the house with a combination oil-and-wood furnace and the oil truck drives in to fill the tank and there it is. I am not judging people for using oil and gas; it’s like that cartoon that says, “We should change society. . . yet you participate in society!” It’s just, what are we going to do? How can we untangle this Gordian knot? I write on an Apple laptop: what do I know of the processes that made the elements that constructed this thing, and what they do to people and the environment? What happened to the cobalt miners and the issues that came up with these computers some years ago? Yet here we all are using them.
KY: Most of the book takes place indoors—in tool cribs, administrative offices, dorm rooms, and loading docks. But your brief encounters with nature are very memorable—beautifully illustrated panoramas, seeing the northern lights, even trying to shoo the three-legged fox. In a place where everyone is always working, were you able to connect with nature much? Was anyone?
KB: Oh yes. Remember there was a character who took up photography as a hobby, and he would go out and photograph the northern lights? He worked for Shell at Albian Sands with me. He’s retired now and still on my Facebook and still doing nature photography and other handmade crafts. People did connect. It wasn’t dangerous to go outside (unless it was the dead of winter). People loved to go quadding (I’m not a big fan of those things, but people love to get out and do that). They snowmobile. There’s the national park and Gregoire Lake, things like that. Recreational encounters with nature I mean.
KY: Let’s talk about the title. Near the end of the book, a flock of literal ducks gets mired in a toxic tailings pond and dies. It’s in the newspapers, and the company’s solution—their methods to deter other birds from landing—is laughable. There is a strong sense that it is ineffective, only for show. We see that echoed in the treatment of employees—safety meetings are a joke, injury and even death are not uncommon; meanwhile drug use, health concerns, and sexual harassment are extreme and largely ignored. So, were all of you the ducks?
KB: Well, the ducks were the first thing out of Fort McMurray that I saw when I was there that made a big splash internationally. It was in the New York Times, it was on national news, it was everywhere. And suddenly the eyes of the world were on the oil sands and wondering, Hmm, what’s going on up there? And the companies made a big show of the apology and all they will do to prevent this from happening again. Meanwhile, I had been there for so long seeing all this humanity in crisis around me, in a way, and no one is looking. Not just the workers, but local Indigenous communities are saying, “We have rare cancers here,” “We are seeing deformed fish in the water.” And no one really cares. But these ducks go down and people seem to care about that. And the ducks were just doing what ducks do; they were migrating, and they landed in a place they thought was safe, and it wasn’t. And I felt like for some of us, that is what we did, too.
KY: It has to be said, in spite of the slow devastation, there is a lot of humor and tenderness in your story, or at least your depiction of it here. A gift of Christmas cookies baked by someone’s wife, knitting with a platonic male friend, moments of comfort and understanding between women. There were, of course, plenty of decent people there too. I’m curious, did you stay in contact with anyone there? Did you get in touch with anyone about the book?
KB: Yes, and yes. Many of the people from Long Lake and Albian are still on my Facebook—Facebook was less of a thing when I was at Syncrude/Aurora, so I lost contact with those folks. Anyone I put in the book I pretty well called them up and told them about it. Even the people I never met that are in there—some of them I called. You don’t want to open a book and go, Wait a minute—that’s my dead brother. I had to get in touch with them. Everyone was very good about it; I changed almost everyone’s names.
On Salvation Through Art
KY: Toward the end of your time in the oil sands, you start working on your now legendary web comic series Hark! A Vagrant. I got the sense that was vital to your spirit’s survival at the time, but it must have been a little surreal, too. What was that like?
KB: Well, after I had comics in my life, working in the camps got easier, because I had this thing that was just for me. Before I had that, I lost myself; it was just work work work and people chipping away at you in a certain way. Then I had comics and I’d go home to my little camp room after work and draw them and put them online—and here I was in a work camp in the oil sands, very alone in many ways, and I was connecting to people who saw me for who I was, through my work. I felt like myself. Then, yes, I would go to work the next day and maybe someone would say something crude or usual to me—I remember men barking at me while I walked by once after I got a fan letter—surreal juxtaposition. The barking is in the book. But I had this thing, for myself, and they couldn’t take it from me.
Get your copy of Ducks here.
Kate Beaton was born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada. After graduating from Mount Allison University with a double degree in history and anthropology, she moved to Alberta in search of work that would allow her to pay down her student loans. During the years she spent out West, Beaton began creating web comics under the name Hark! A Vagrant, quickly drawing a substantial following around the world. The collections of her landmark strips Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops each spent several months on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list, as well as appearing on Best of the Year lists from Time, the Washington Post, Vulture, NPR Books, and winning the Eisner, Ignatz, Harvey, and Doug Wright Awards. She has also published the picture books King Baby and The Princess and the Pony. She lives in Cape Breton with her family.
Kathleen Yale is Orion’s special projects editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book, Howl Like a Wolf! She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist.