The Difficult Truths of Kate Beaton’s ‘Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands’

Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark! A Vagrant, there was Katie Beaton of the Cape Breton Beaton, specifically Mabou, a tight-knit seaside community where the lobster is as abundant as beaches, fiddles, and Gaelic folk songs. With the singular goal of paying off her student loans, Katie 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. Katie encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands, where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet is never discussed.

It’s the time of year when I start thinking about internet-friendly Best Of listicles for the previous year. And while movies are an easy target (I watch a lot of those), not only has Angela already beaten me to that, there’s one piece of media that overshadowed every movie, tv show, or unintentionally hilarious Republican House Speaker vote that I watched over the last year.  My friends, if there’s one piece of 2022 art or media I can implore you to find yourself in front of, it’s Kate Beaton’s graphic novel Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

I was already a big fan of Kate Beaton. Her now-defunct webcomic Hark, A Vagrant stays bookmarked in my browser so that when I’m feeling low, I can read a random strip from the 403 she’s created (many of these strips are also collected in two books – Hark, A Vagrant and Step Aside Pops – if you prefer to read things on paper) between 2007 to 2018. I’ve read her children’s books, The Princess and the Pony and King Baby to my kids and we’ve watched her TV series Pinecone and Pony together. I will also admit to reading those books and watching the show even when my kids aren’t around because her voice is so unique, and uniquely funny that she’s made me a fan for life. 

Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a beautiful, difficult, important book. It’s very different from her other work – longer-form, more contemplative, and certainly more serious – but it comes from that same unique voice. Hark, A Vagrant did feature some autobiographical comics amongst the historical comedy for which it’s best known, the best of which feature Beaton engaging with a younger version of herself, with her sisters, or with her father. But regardless of the subject matter, ‘Hark’ always had a punchline. Ducks is disarming and has moments of humour (even in the sad or infuriating bits, the way Beaton draws herself with gritted teeth always makes me smile) but almost never goes for the joke and is not exactly summer fun time reading. In my opinion, it’s the most important narrative work (in any medium) of 2022. Ducks has earned ‘best of’ accolades from the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Guardian, NPR, and several others. And, for what it’s worth, even Barack Obama seems to agree, including it in his best books of 2022 list.

Is he actually reading all these or just copying from other lists? Who can say.

Ducks centres around Beaton’s two years working in the oil sands of Alberta, and touches on many difficult truths of that lifestyle and industry. The oil and gas industry is an easy target. It’s an exploitive, unsustainable business that is justifiably associated with many of the worst instincts of human folly. In Canada especially, the oil sands represent the dirtiest, most harmful method of resource extraction – the worst and most invasive parts of oil drilling and mining combined – and all of it takes place on stolen, unceded Indigenous land. Ducks certainly presents this point of view, but it also grapples with and balances it against another difficult truth – that this dirty business provides tantalizingly lucrative opportunities for people all across Canada (and the world, thanks to Canada’s temporary foreign worker programs) that aren’t always available in the places they come from. In Beaton’s experience, coming from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it’s understood that these (and really, any) opportunities can only be realized if one leaves the island for elsewhere. The first part of Ducks makes clear that for communities like Cape Breton that once depended on fisheries or the mining industries which have since dried up, there is a hollowing-out of the population since, if you want to do anything except teach, the island offers little else in terms of employment. And even as Beaton does what many other Cape Breton young people do when faded with limited opportunity and mounting student loans and leaves the island for the money-rich oil sands, there’s a foreshadowing that one day the oil sands themselves, once their value is depleted, may share Cape Breton’s fate.

What follows is a story of trudging, soul-stealing, thankless, and lonely work as a tool crib attendant and, later, in a small site office in resource extraction companies with names like SynCrude, which would be too on-the-nose if it were made up (it’s not). With only a few, fleeting moments of humour or beauty and barely any portly, farting ponies* to be found within its pages, Ducks will be a jarring tonal change if you’re a devotee of Beaton’s prior work like I am. It’s a dark and sometimes terrifying account of working in a place where everyone is disposable – to drugs, to violence, to accidents, to mental breakdown, and sometimes all of the above. It describes a punishingly isolated workplace and lifestyle where a war is being waged between resource-extracting human forces and the land and environment that seems to push back, often violently and with fatal consequences. Scenes that describe the single treacherous, icy road providing access to the camps where accidents happen each day, or the multi-ton truck that crushes a coworker in their vehicle make it seem as though the environment is openly antagonizing those that exploit it. 

Keeping with the through-line of difficult truths in Ducks is the constant sexual harassment and discrimination Beaton and the other women face at work. It presents the oil sands as a place built to foster toxic masculinity – with a huge imbalance of male to female workers, crushing loneliness, isolation, boredom, and the systemic tolerance of abusive behaviour as long as one continues to be useful to the corporation. Beaton’s pages are peppered with microaggressions so incessant that even you, the reader, starts to become numb to them, just as she does in the book. You watch the illustrated Beaton push back against every snide comment and joke about her appearance, reputation, her prospects for marriage toward the beginning of the book until something breaks and she just ignores or minimizes them towards the end. You can feel her doing the calculus of whether it’s worth it to clap back at the offending voice, or to go further and report him. Ultimately, Beaton comes to the deflating conclusion that so many women are forced to – that the consequences of looking to a toxic system for help are as bad or worse for the victim than the perpetrator. Especially in an environment where no one is truly essential, and that there’s always someone else willing to do the same job for the same money.

When things go further than microaggressions, though, is where the Ducks breaks my heart. Beaton depicts two sexual assaults in such an unexpected and multifaceted way that it feels like a stake through the chest, even more so than in similar scenes in film and television. Her art style, so cunningly simple but devastatingly expressive is something I’m so used to seeing employed for humour that when it shows Beaton being assaulted it nearly broke me. The austere lines and use of dead space and the way she builds tension and then, later, confusion is as effective as any narrative description of sexual assault I’ve seen – maybe more so. But it doesn’t stop there, because it never does. Throughout Ducks, Beaton revisits the two incidents several times, trying to recount it to dismissive coworkers, reporting it to uncaring management, and later, to her sister who reveals that she, too, experienced the same in college. And in between these scenes there’s a chilling reminder that the people who dismissed her, who tolerated and minimized the assaults, and even the perpetrators themselves are right in the camps with her, working alongside her every day. 

Perhaps the harshest truth Beaton asserts, or at least presents as a question, in Ducks is if anyone – from your father to your uncle to the most progressive people in your social circle – could avoid turning into a toxic figure given a long enough exposure to an environment like the oil sands. With enough physical toil, loneliness, and an inoculation against empathy being almost job requirements, how long would it take for someone to become a monster? And this is where the title of the book falls most neatly into play. It refers to an incident, depicted in the book’s pages, where thousands of ducks were found dead in a tailing pond, a small body of water where effluent from the oil extraction process is dumped. From first glance, a tailing pond appears to be a typical lake but is filled with toxic elements, attracting wildlife that ultimately end up dying as a result. Perhaps, as Beaton seems to be suggesting, everyone who goes to the oil sands or a similar environment, disillusioned into thinking it’s a simple, unskilled job at which you’ll earn your money and easily leave, is a potential duck. Testing the waters until–subtly, maybe without you ever noticing–the toxins seep in.

*Beaton’s most recognizable creation, her trademark farting fat pony does make a brief cameo in Ducks. One might even call it an origin story.


Sachin Hingoo recommends that, beyond reading the book itself, that you check out Beaton’s wonderful presentation of Ducks for the Vancouver Public Library from November 2022, which features live musical accompaniment by Peter MacInnes. You can find it over on upstart video sharing website “You Tube”

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