Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark A Vagrant fame, there was Katie Beaton of the Cape Breton Beatons, specifically Mabou, a tight-knit seaside community where the lobster is as abundant as beaches, fiddles, and Gaelic folk songs. After university, Beaton heads out west to take advantage of Alberta’s oil rush, part of the long tradition of East Coasters who seek gainful employment elsewhere when they can’t find it in the homeland they love so much. With the singular goal of paying off her student loans, what the journey will actually cost Beaton will be far more than she anticipates.
Arriving in Fort McMurray, Beaton finds work in the lucrative camps owned and operated by the world’s largest oil companies. Being one of the few women among thousands of men, the culture shock is palpable. It does not hit home until she moves to a spartan, isolated worksite for higher pay. She encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet never discussed. Her wounds may never heal.
Beaton’s natural cartooning prowess is on full display as she draws colossal machinery and mammoth vehicles set against a sublime Albertan backdrop of wildlife, Northern Lights, and Rocky Mountains. Her first full-length graphic narrative, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is an untold story of Canada: a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and natural beauty while simultaneously exploiting both the riches of its land and the humanity of its people.
A powerful memoir about a complex subject that she carries complicated feelings about. She handles the telling with compassion and sensitivity despite the terrible experiences she endured. I’m of an age with her and though I never went through anything remotely close to that bad, and I didn’t have the albatross of student loans, it pisses me off that the first years after college (at least in the mid-2000s) seem to be universally wearing and exploitative, yet we all know we have to put up with it. Why does our society have to work this way? There’s a cathartic moment towards the end where she tells truth to power even though it makes no real change; the companies care as little for the impact on their workers as they do the ducks and the First Nations people downstream. Everything is done in the name of deniability and preventing liability.