Ducks: Two Years on the Oil Sands Paints a Bleak Reality with Startling Moments of Beauty

Memoir in graphic novel form can be a one-of-a-kind reading experience. Books like Persepolis and Fun Home use visuals to communicate the writer’s personal and societal histories in a singular way. Kate Beaton, Canadian cartoonist, does just that with her latest work Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.

I have always considered Kate Beaton to be a professional funny-lady, with books like Hark! A Vagrant (Which honestly, I may recommend as a palate cleanser, this one is very, very funny) and one of my favourite picture books, The Princess and the Pony, but she proves her poignant range as an artist and storyteller in her latest graphic memoir.

Ducks finds Beaton, freshly graduated from university and back in her home town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Beaton is riddled with student debt, struggling for job prospects as many folks are. She makes the difficult decision of leaving her hometown to find work. It’s a trend that has affected many parts of the Maritimes.

Beaton decides to spend a few years out working in the Alberta oil sands like so many others, to get rid of her debt and be done with it. Two years with high pay is nothing in the grand scheme of things, right? Beaton knows it will be hard and depressing, but she knows it’ll be temporary, a means to an end.

I warn you: this graphic novel is mostly very bleak, but in her style, at times very darkly funny. I think the overall impact and cultural significance of this book is worth it. It is a striking storytelling experience for a phenomenon still taking place in Canada that I do think we could all benefit from learning about.

Visually, Beaton has captured the grim realities of the physical space of the oil sands sparsely with all navy and grayscale. The never-ending landscapes and dark night scenes feel even more impactful in the muted colour scheme.

The way Beaton navigates gender, class, and racial dynamics are excruciating, but a really good representation of how these dynamics can play out in such a harsh environment. Beaton shares her experience of rampant sexual harassment and generally uncouth behavior from this traditionally male-dominated work environment.

This adage of being involved or being crushed also applies to the Indigenous nations whose land the oil sands live on: serious disease has plagued the nations by Athabasca since the operations of these refineries. The Indigenous peoples living there are stuck supporting these businesses that are actively destroying their ancestral land and making them and everyone else living there so ill, just to get by.

Beaton addresses this in an op-ed, “The oil sands operate on stolen lands. Their pollution, work camps and ever-growing settler populations continue to have serious social, economic, cultural, environmental and health consequences for the Indigenous communities in the region…Remarkable economic growth stands side by side with other issues of community concern. It is complicated.”

The representation of the psychic damage too, of folks deeply understanding what they’re doing to the environment for their own survival, and being too burnt out to fight it, by no fault of their own. It’s an impossible bind that so many people find themselves in. And some people also do not care or think it doesn’t affect them, or the environmental and sociopolitical ramifications will be a problem long after they’re gone.

She says, “But what choice did they have but to be involved, or be completely crushed?” This, I think, is the crux of what Beaton is trying to communicate with this work, and that this choice shouldn’t be presented to anyone, ever, but it persists.

Despite the persistence of this bleak reality here in Canada, there are, as always, moments of great softness amidst this chaos. In below –40 nights, the Northern Lights take Beaton by surprise, when she locks eyes with a fox with three legs in the darkness of the work site, and the bonds formed with co-workers all highlight a softness that stands in stark contrast to the harsh reality illuminated in Ducks.

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