By Charlotte Finn
Alberta is a beautiful place, despite our best efforts.
I have been riding my bike a lot around the city of Calgary lately, during the summer months when things are at their warmest. Not too long ago, I crested to the top of a hill and had to pause to look out over the Bow River below, its water like cast diamonds in the sunlight. It was a lovely sight, marred only by the smoke from an active wildfire many hundreds of kilometers away.
There have been a lot of wildfires lately as the summers have gotten more hot and dry. I know why. Everyone who’s being honest knows why. Because many more hundred of kilometers north of here lie the oil sands, the principal setting of Kate Beaton’s autobiographical comic, Ducks – a very strong candidate for comic of the year.
Part 1: Away
The first thing that hits you about Ducks is the melancholy and thoughtfulness of several simple four-panel pages which pay off with one wide panel, all rendered in greyscale, as Kate Beaton lets you know what this story is about: the two years she spent working in Alberta’s oil sands to pay off her student loans. It’s a common story in Nova Scotia and the other maritime provinces, and has been for longer than I’ve been alive.
A saying that I first heard in connection with the maritime provinces is that there are the maritime provinces, and then there is Away – everything that isn’t there. It is well known, and said as much by Beaton, that in order to make a living, one must venture out into the Away – the Have provinces, as opposed to Nova Scotia’s status as a Have-Not province.
Many people return from Away, and many do not, and this is a story about Beaton’s journey to an Away that, for her, never becomes a Here – it stays an Away not just for her, but for just about everyone she meets. A place you visit, but don’t put down roots in; a liminal space for some, and a purgatory for others.
The aesthetics for this story fit exactly how Beaton wants to tell it – everything is rendered in soft gray and blue, but there are variations within that aesthetic choice. Cape Breton is warm, welcoming, and feels like home; Victoria feels nice but gives the impression of artifice covering something ugly; the oil sands are full of long nights and endless snow, where even the Aurora Borealis is in gray.
It would have been tempting to use spot color for the Aurora Borealis, but it’s a wiser decision, I feel, to keep it within the same tone as the rest of the book. Making sure that Away is in the same color palette as her home helps to underscore the book’s primary theme – that this is all part of the same life, and all in the same country, and that Away can become Here before you even know it’s happening.
Part 2: The Fisherman’s Lament
Each chapter of the book begins with a brief page that gives an overview of everyone you’re about to meet as Kate tells her story, and their story, as best as she can. This proves to be important because while most of this book is set in the oil sands, there are many sites with many different workers in those camps – and friendships, as a result, are tough to maintain.
People do live in Fort McMurray and Fort McKay, the two townships we see the most. But no one in the camps seems to truly live in them, even though they work long hours with little time off. At one point, one of the most important exchanges on the subject happens when Kate talks to the foreman at Syncrude Aurora, who is a fellow Maritime expat:
Once upon a time, the Maritimes were a resource extraction economy, with fish to catch and coal to mine. Those resources collapsed, and the scars of that collapse are felt generations later and nearly an entire country away, as a born fisherman finds himself in another resource extraction job.
The burden of being in the Away is made worse by the locals, who are mad at those from the Maritime provinces for coming to Alberta and “taking” their money. This sums up that particular mindset – the one that thinks that labor only goes one way; that you are expected to work and are fortunate to have a paycheque. Those in the camps give their labor, their years, their health, and often their lives to the company… but to certain locals, those gifts will never be enough. Left mostly unsaid, but sometimes hinted at, is the other fear that we don’t give voice to – the knowledge that Alberta’s oil isn’t unlimited and that someday the resource extraction economy will be no more as well.
A Maritimer, far from home, sings of this folly that they all seem trapped in; how they built the boats to catch so much fish that they put themselves out of a job, because of their lack of wisdom and carelessness with looking after the land and seas. Despite their best efforts, the cycle – of colonialism’s never-ending shame, of industrialization’s demand for more and more energy, of capitalism’s exploitation – the cycle carries on, so far from home and so far from their calling.
Part 3: Tick Tick Tick
The feeling of being an outsider, of being from Away, looms over everything; Kate is in a hostile environment from the word go, getting up before the sun is up and catching a bus in the stark dead night of an Alberta winter, rendered with heavy blacks that feel voracious. Highway 63 is a recurring character; a stretch of road uniting the oilsands that is one of the most accident prone highways in Alberta, especially in winter and double-especially at night. At one of the camps, a fox with three legs often is spotted; not the first wildlife to be endangered by the mining operation, and far from the last. Nothing, from the moment she ventures out to the Syncrude base mine, lets her forget that this place is always at least a little dangerous.
Things don’t get better for Kate, as the ratio of men to women on site is about fifty to one, isolating her even further as there is a constant, constant procession of flirtation that doesn’t stay flirtation for long. It becomes so ever-present that, in a brilliant conceit, they no longer even fit on the page, consigned to a distant half-heard clock ticking incessantly, like every noise in your home that you barely hear any more.
People weren’t made to work and do nothing else, and so this weighs on everyone – but it doesn’t weigh equally on everyone, as Kate comes in for treatment that her male co-workers don’t, and in turn the women of color she works with endure things she doesn’t, such as when a friend Rosie is mistaken for a mail order bride. This treatment turns ugly in a pair of horrific, shocking incidents going into the two sexual assaults that Kate went through at Long Lake.
There is so much that’s striking about these pages – the shift in panel style, the silence, the page numbers themselves vanishing, as if this is an unspoken-of event that is intruding on the official recollection of events and saying hey, this happened too. But the most striking thing about this is how Kate just has to pick herself up and carry forward, because work doesn’t care and neither does debt.
And how she finds out, over the course of this book, just how many of the women in her life have gone through what she went through.
Life – and life specifically under capitalism, and more specifically under debt in capitalism, and even more specifically, in debt, at a demanding job, under capitalism – doesn’t allow us to take much of a break to process awful things that we’ve gone through. It’s not just Kate – it’s the other women and, to varying degrees, it’s everyone.
On these sites there is rampant drug abuse, and it barely goes mentioned. There are accident reports that get fudged to keep the site’s record of days without a lost-time accident streak going. Even the smoke break shed has strictly regulated hours for when you can smoke. This is a place, top to bottom, of Work; a place where you give your work and you get a cheque, and that’s just about all there is. You are defined by your job. Or at least, you are told you have to be.
You could call it the concept of Work – at least through the lens of capitalism – in its most refined form, a life based so strongly around one’s job that Kate barely even has time for Christmas.
And the expectation – of everyone, but especially of women – is that you’re expected to hide this. In the afterword, Beaton talks about how she felt she had to include the details of her assaults because they are considered sensationalist and they shouldn’t be; they’re far more common than anyone wants to admit. It’s “rape culture,” not “rape individuals at fault” – an ongoing set of social mores that say, be quiet, no one wants to hear about it.
Everyone is expected, in their own way, to be quiet. Deal with your own isolation, your own addictions. Yes, there’s programs where you can reach out, but you’re considered a lesser man if you go to them, because what kind of man is anything other than the stoic provider?
That’s the thing about the ticking clock; it never stops. To speak is to interrupt, to say that you’re more important, and the culture of these sites, the culture of Canada itself, is built around you not being so important that your needs override the system. And then all of a sudden, the clock stops, and you are confronted with all that you heard but didn’t or couldn’t listen to while it played on.
And then it starts back up again. Back at it. Rise and grind. Tick tick tick.
Part 4: The Boulder
In the midsection of the book, Kate leaves the oilsands and departs for Victoria, a city even further Away from the Maritimes, but it’s also Away from the oilsands and that’s exactly what she (very understandably) wants. She arrives in a city full of, in a common turn of phrase, the newlywed and the nearly dead – a place where the resource economy seems so far away.
But despite Kate spending a year’s worth of time there in life, Beaton spends less than twenty pages chronicling this time. The narrative here feels more disjointed, as a collection of anecdotes rather than events. A series of jobs fly by in a handful of pages, with one being less than a page long. The problems with Victoria’s red zone – a policy of hostility towards the homeless – comes and goes within a page.
Why spend this little time on it?
Victoria is a full year in terms of real time, but in terms of the narrative, much is gotten across in very little time. Here, the demands of capitalist economies manifest in a different way, with Kate unable to secure a job, living in an apartment with no bed, and worst of all, still weighed down by her debt.
Debt’s a hell of a thing. It seems fair: “we gave you X in Money, you must pay it back”, but there is cruelty in that alleged fairness. Banks make money off of it, and if there is a situation where one party stands to profit off another, it’s difficult to argue that an equitable balance of power has been struck. Kate can’t walk away from the debt, no matter where she goes. She’s left the oilsands, but her reason for going to the oilsands refuses to leave her.
I’ve been there. It wasn’t student debt, but it was debt, and it took a long, long time to get rid of. I called it the Boulder, because it felt as heavy as one. I got very good at not spending money. I dropped out of popular culture for almost half a decade, I learned all the ways you can cover up rips and discolorations in old clothes, I learned how to eat cheap, and I remember bursting into tears at unexpected expenses that would delay my ability to chip away at the boulder. It was like eating a mountain a pebble at a time. And I still needed help to get myself out of it; I also burst into tears at a generous gift from my parents, whom I had never approached about my problem but who doubtlessly knew I had problems anyways.
But those habits have stayed with me, as the cruel calculus of the debt stays with Kate through almost all of the book. And so, to more fully shatter that boulder, Kate returns to the oilsands.
And the worst part is that I completely understand why. That’s the fullness of the tragedy. The Boulder isn’t real, but thanks to the culture we’ve built – the levers of the economy, of debt, of labor, or reimbursement – it feels real.
At one point, a character in this book talks about how they never had the opportunity to be generous with money until they came to the oilsands, and that is the stark brutal reality of why people come to Away. Many people are cruel; many others are kind. But the system doesn’t care; it only cares about the labor you put into it (which it encourages you to do) and the money you get out of it (which it parts with, with reluctance.) It’s as passionless and as implacable as a boulder, and if you’re not careful, it will roll over you just as fast.
Part 5: We Cannot Extract Ourselves
Ducks is a masterpiece.
I’ve been a fan of Beaton for a while – anyone who can make me laugh at jokes about Lester B. Peason earns my respect – and Hark, a Vagrant! lies in the same company as comics like Get Your War On and Achewood in the category of “comics that have rewired the linguistic center of my brain.” But as any fan of Terry Pratchett can tell you, no one can make you cry like the person who makes you laugh, and Ducks is Beaton coming into the fullness of her craft, tackling a project that you would never expect from her and doing it with the assuredness of an old master of the form.
The title comes from a segment of the book where an article is published about sick waterfowl; poisoned by mining tailings and drawing international attention to the oil sands. This makes everyone on site uncomfortable, as the cause of environmentalism in Alberta is a very fraught subject. People here are very protective of the oil industry; a recent job fair I went to had 85% of its booths hail from oil and gas companies, if you’re looking for the reason why. It’s difficult to get someone to believe something when their livelihood depends on them not believing it – as many of the Maritime expats are quite familiar with.
But what strikes me is that concurrent with the article about the ducks going live, someone on Kate’s worksite dies of a heart attack, and in his last moments, has to pitch himself out of the elevated crane cab to ensure he doesn’t fall on the controls and send the crane out of control. A man dies, and dies saving others, and it’s not news.
It’s telling. The job being what it is means that this happens with such regularity – and is often hushed up by people who bend the rules to make accident reports look good – that everyone just gets used to it. You get used to people dying on site, or people succumbing to drug addictions and mental illness. You get used to working long hours to pay off a debt. You get used to everyone floating in a void. You get used to the harassment that Kate endures (and the far worse things she endures.)
A question that the book constantly raises is “can a place change you.” But really: how could it not? Doing anything, and watching anything happen for so long, means you have to get used to it. What is getting used to it, if not it changing you? How could any fisherman do anything but lament, as despite their insistence, they know that they are no longer fully fishermen? How can you live under the crushing weight of a boulder of debt, and now have it change how you act? How could anyone go through what Kate did, listen to the endless tick tick tick of harassment and sexism and far, far worse, and not be changed by it?
I titled this essay “Lost in Away” because so many who go to Away don’t come back home, and those who do go to the Away and do come back? Come back different. They’ve lost something along the way: perhaps innocence or a sense of self-worth. Or perhaps something they wanted to lose, such as debt – but even the cost of losing that debt stays with them. All a life is, is a sum of the experiences had within it; that’s what a memoir is, too. Like Kate says so poetically on page 363: she can’t extract herself from having come.
But if this is a memoir, it’s one with purpose beyond a recollection of a life, because themes have inevitably emerged – themes of trauma, yes, but themes of empathy as Kate constantly asks herself what’s going on in the lives of people she can’t fully connect with, and themes of the larger issues with colonialist exploitation as she grapples, both in this narrative and in the afterword, of her place within the machinery of resource extraction. This is memoir as advocacy, and it couldn’t be more timely.
Attention on the oilsands has not faded since the article about the ducks; even as the calculus of resource extraction demands more oil for more cars and more electricity, stories and advocacy calling for a full accounting of its costs have grown in prominence as well. Kate talks about her first encounter with the work of Celina Harpe, a Cree elder who has been outspoken for many years on what resource extraction has been doing to the Indigenous population of Alberta (and Canada, and really, all of North America when you get down to it.)
The environmental issues are there for all to see, but humans react differently to a narrative than they do to a collection of statistics. The narratives woven through here – of the oilsands, of the labor issues facing those working the oilsands, of the issues that force people to have to work the oilsands, all borne of Beaton’s personal experiences – paint a story of a part of our society that was broken, and that is broken (or, to switch to more leftist parlance, working as intended – it’s the people it breaks.)
That this tale exists, is important on its own. But that this story is told with the level of craft, dedication, and thoughtfulness that it’s told, is remarkable. I can’t recommend Ducks highly enough. It’s as beautiful as the land it’s set in, and as devastating as the impact of environmental disaster has been on that land.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
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