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‘Money jail’: Cape Breton cartoonist Kate Beaton reflects on her time in the oilsands

Before her books were bestsellers, Kate Beaton left home to pay her student loans. Her new graphic novel looks at gender, power, environment — and people — in Alberta’s oilsands

Kate Beaton hit the comic scene with Hark! A Vagrant, a mid-aughts web strip that combined a love of history with an absurdist sense of humour. Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Beaton honed her joke-telling skills under serious circumstances: in her early 20s, she joined generations of Maritimers and left home to pay the bills, in her case student loans. 

Beaton spent two years in worker camps in the Alberta oilsands, which she experienced as lonely places where everyone is homesick and women are seriously outnumbered. Scribbling about the sex life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was a way for her to remember who she was, or at least who she wanted to be. Hark! A Vagrant eventually became two bestselling collections. 

Kate Beaton. Her new memoir, Ducks, about her time in the oilsands, is out Sept. 13.
“Ducks are migratory animals that get stuck when they land in the oil — the metaphor is easy,” says cartoonist Kate Beaton about the title of her new graphic novel memoir. Photo: Morgan Murray

In 2014, Beaton released a five-part comic as a first go at telling her oilsands story. Now it’s a full memoir, and it’s spectacular. Fans of her signature so-bad-it’s-good illustration need to be prepared: turns out Beaton can actually draw really well. Her precise lines convey the enormity of oilsands landscapes — “it looked like the moon,” she says of her first day pulling into a Syncrude mine site in Mildred Lake, Alta. — as well as the intimate emotions of workers separated from loved ones for weeks at a time. 

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is about Beaton, her debt and the effects of isolation and family separation, particularly on men. It’s also about power, capitalism, the land and labour, and what Beaton learned about Canada as she came of age. The Narwhal caught up with her to talk about the book, being released on Sept. 13. 

Excerpt from "Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands" by Kate Beaton.

Before we get into the content, let’s talk about the art! The section-opener scenes of the various sites, that’s not cartoon to me, that’s fine art illustration.

I had to use so much photo reference to get it right. They’re too precise, you know, what a Syncrude site is. I didn’t want to misrepresent what it was and it’s also very intricate. I’m looking at the thing and I’m like, pretty much copying it, exactly. You need to do that to get the impression of the scale of the thing because if you look at a cartoon landscape, you might not be wowed by it in the same way that I was in person.

That comes across — the scenes where it’s you and some giant truck that’s as big as a house.

They would be as big as a house, you know. You had to climb stairs, staircases to get into them. You’d stand up and be about as high as the tire rim or something. The trucks were just unfathomably large. 

A lot of women drive these machines, probably because you don’t need to trade to do it, you just need a certain licence. That was an opportunity for women who don’t usually go into red seal trades, it’s a high paying job. 

I was in the tool crib and I got offered like, you know, “we could train you to do this.” But somebody told me it was like driving in a video game because it was very unreal up there. So high up and you’re so far away that it’s almost like watching like a screen of the earth — everything is just so small and you disassociate from what you’re looking at. 

There was an inherent danger of that responsibility that made me squeak a little. Because if you zone out and you’re driving that thing, you could kill someone. And someone does die in the book because of that. And it was horrific. Because they rolled over a pickup truck. As if anything on earth should be able to roll over a pickup truck and crush it like a pancake with a person inside. Can you imagine? Living with that? It wasn’t a job I was interested in.

Do you think maybe women do that job because they’re by themselves? You talk about working in the tool crib, giving people the tools they need, and in the book you get harassed and ogled and bothered a lot. 

Oh, for sure. For sure. The pay is probably the first driver. But then being alone, yeah, a job like that would have been great. No doubt. That kind of isolation does also get to you especially if you’re on a night shift or something. It’s tough. It’s all tough. No great options, I gotta say.

That is a real theme, no good options. From the beginning, when you’re deciding whether to go and your mom is saying, ‘Oh, my brothers and sisters went to other provinces for jobs. And it makes me really sad that you all have to do that, too.’ 

I am part of a pattern. The Maritime provinces, and Cape Breton very especially, have been exporting labour for over 100 years. We have all the hits in the family, we’ve got Boston, we’ve got Toronto, we’ve got Windsor, Elliot Lake, the logging camps in B.C. — wherever these engines of capitalism needed cheap labour, pretty much. 

My mom’s family, they would come home every summer and my grandmother’s house was full of life and laughter. And then the ones from Ontario would have to leave. And they would cry going in the car and my grandpa would cry. My grandmother would be very silent in her sorrow. And my mom would take her grief back to ours and this house that had been full of life would be very silent. 

You saw these choices in front of you and you were like, this is going to be me. I’m either going to be the one crying getting in the car or I’m going to be the one grieving them leaving. But what choice do you have when you have no money? I had no money when I graduated from university.

Excerpt from "Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands" by Kate Beaton

You have to understand that Cape Breton at that time was at its lowest point. They closed the pulp mill, which employed a good part of the population. They had closed Sydney Steel and the coal mines. And they did it in such a shitty way that devalued who you are as a population. 

One of the coal mines, the Phalen mine, closed right around Christmas. The workers would come to work and there would just be a sign on the door. The owners of the company would be gone by then because they didn’t want to have a riot or they were scared if they had to tell people face-to-face that people will be mad at them — because of course, they fucking will be mad at them. 

Why did I leave out west for work? It was just like, inevitable. I never expected humanity from my bosses or from companies. You go there expecting a certain amount of abuse, to be honest, in exchange for what you’re told is the better thing, the opportunity to make money. People called it “money jail” when I was growing up.

And meanwhile, you know, there’s always the running jokes about people in Cape Breton who don’t like to work. The Maritimes are always looking for a handout.

Even when you get into the darker sides of camp, there’s a real sense of empathy. The one scene where the guy’s crying on his cellphone when his kid called him by sneaking his wife’s phone…

I remember that clearly. Because he’s like, “my wife would never call in the middle of the day, there must be an emergency.” But what really happened was that his kid found the cellphone and was like, “I’m just gonna call Daddy, because I miss Daddy.” 

He basically had a moment where he dropped his facade in front of us, in a place where you’re performing a certain kind of masculinity in the workplace. He was like, “watch for me in the sky, buddy, I’m coming home.” And it broke my heart. To be that parent, knowing that that kid is there waiting for you all the time.

In that workplace culture, it’s not a thing that gets discussed like, “gee, this isolation and loneliness is really getting to me.” In the book, you see people struggling with their mental health. The obvious repercussions of that kind of culture where there is a greater availability of alcohol and drugs. And there is a scarcity of mental health help and understanding, at least there was at the time.

You had an idea ahead of time about the emotional aspect of going. What did you think about the environmental aspect before you went and how did that change?

I had no sense of the scale. And the internet wasn’t the way it is now. I had just graduated from university and nobody was talking about it. The politically engaged students, I remember them having a demonstration on Darfur, not even on our continent. 

So no one said, like, “tar sands” around you.

No, no, nobody was talking about it. It was not in the conversation at all. People were worried about like Hurricane Katrina and other stuff that was going on, almost none of it within Canada. 

I think Canada still maybe had sort of a view of ourselves as like [clasps her hands under her chin and flutters her eyelashes innocently]. I mean, I took [anthropology] and we studied Indigenous cultures and stuff. And I don’t think anyone ever brought up residential schools or anything. Now you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” But like at the time, you’re not asking the questions because you don’t even know what questions to ask. And you’re 20. Your whole life you’ve lived without knowing about things. So why would you ask a question about it? 

Excerpt of comic memoir "Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands" by Kate Beaton.

You seem to grow a consciousness as the story goes on.

There’s a scene where I get on the bus for the first time and it pulls in front of Syncrude and it’s like — is this the moon? Plus it’s six in the morning and it’s dark and it’s all lit up in lights and fire and the lights are illuminating smoke that’s swirling all around it. And you’ve never seen anything like this.

Slowly you gather information over time, the old fashioned way, by being there. When I get there, I meet these archaeologists. “Oh, they’re here before we start digging, we have to find out if there’s anything important here before we dig up.” Anything important before we dig? That’s a loaded, loaded thing. 

By the end, you’re thinking about all this stuff — who lives around here? The first time I drove by Fort McKay, the Indigenous community, I thought it was another mine because it was so close to Syncrude. But it’s the community of Fort McKay. Syncrude was like, “we’re going to build right here. Is that okay?” And they’re like, “I guess it fuckin’ has to be.” Of course, they’re like, economically very successful and everything but what choice did they have? Yeah. It’s all so complicated. And heartbreaking. 

Excerpt from "Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands" a new memoir by Kate Beaton

In the book, there’s a bit where photos of ducks covered in oil because they landed on tailings ponds become a huge deal, internationally. Is that what the title of the book is about? Those ducks? 

Ducks are migratory animals that get stuck when they land in the oil — the metaphor is easy. But beyond that, that was a big event when I was there. That happened in 2008. You could feel the necks snapping when people looked at Fort McMurray for the first time. It was a triggering point that made the world pay attention to the oilsands.

Cover of "Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands," a new memoir by Kate Beaton

During the time that I was there, I was seeing people in crisis without any kind of recognition of that anywhere. And outside of Fort Mac, you had Indigenous communities talking about the cancers that they were having and people having high rates of asthma, stuff like that. And the response from outside is always pretty violent. There were these environmental impact studies done by the government and stuff for them to say, “Look, those things are not so bad.” And then you find out that, of course, these are heavily biased in favour of government and oil. 

People really focused on the ducks because of how tangible it was, how horrific the numbers were and everything. Imagine looking and seeing thousands of dead animals like that. It’s tragic. But also imagine being someone trying to get attention for having high cancer rates that are rare, and having no one give a shit. And then to have the New York Times be like, “Look at all these ducks.”

Kate Beaton’s book launch tour for Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands begins Sept. 20, 2022, with stops in Halifax, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and some U.S. cities. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

All excerpts from Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, copyright Kate Beaton, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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