In April 2008, an international media storm erupted following the death of 1,600 ducks in a toxic pond in Alberta, western Canada. Kate Beaton remembers it well, because she was working there at the time. “All of a sudden the whole world turned their heads and they were like, ‘What’s going on over there? That doesn’t look good to me. Because of the ducks. And I was like, ‘This is terrible for the ducks, but I see people around me failing. I see a lot more of that happening too, and nobody seems to care. What about the workers? What about cancer rates in Indigenous communities?”
A decade and a half later, Beaton piled his memories of life in a camp in Alberta — built to exploit one of the largest oil fields in the world — into a voluminous, unrestricted graphic novel memoir titled Ducks: Two. Years on the oil sands. She was 21 and had just completed a degree in history and anthropology when she left her home on an island off the easternmost tip of Canada for work more than 2,000 miles away.
As a child of a working-class family who didn’t want to be a teacher, she saw no other way to pay off her student debt. “The only message we received about a better future was that we had to leave home to have one,” she wrote. “We didn’t question it, because it’s the poor region of a poor province and it hasn’t exploded here for generations.”
Alberta was the perfect place to find a better life – “it’s booming there…there’s no end to the money,” writes Beaton. She arrived to find herself in an isolated camp, handing out tools in a warehouse 12 hours a day to men brutalized by spending endless months cut off from their homes and families. “They call them shadow populations. You are not part of any community. You come and go,” she says.
As she made a name for herself as an award-winning cartoonist in Canada and the United States, the story still haunted her. Gradually, Beaton started posting scenes on his website, to see if anyone was interested. They were, but only now has she had the time and energy to put them together in a book.
“I had many interruptions in my life along the way,” she says. “My sister was diagnosed with cancer and we lost her in 2018. And then I had two kids. If I had done it at another time, I think I would have finished it faster. But that’s life for you.
It’s 8 a.m. in Nova Scotia as we speak, and Beaton’s eldest child is racing around in her pajamas, trying to escape her father. “Potty training: it’s a land of tears and devastation,” says Beaton, now 39, rolling her eyes.
Ducks is his first feature film. It has nothing to do with the whimsical comics that made its name, bringing together unlikely historical figures – Richard II, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Ada Lovelacemaybe, or Isaac Newton, Harvey Milk and former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – although there is an ironic intertextuality when you see her drawing the first of these Hark! A drifter strips naked late at night in her room at camp or gets scolded for sneaking scans from the site’s photocopier.
The book tells a dark story in monochrome, its chronological sections of tightly framed memoirs separated by generous swathes of the landscape in which it was set. It’s tortured terrain, marked by the tracks of monstrous diggers, belching smoke from huge chimneys, but it’s also a place of starry skies, with occasional dreamy glimpses of the Northern Lights.
In 2016, this landscape sparked another news story when massive forest fires closed the city of Fort McMurray, which served the camps, pointing to a larger problem of environmental degradation to which the oil fields contribute. But Beaton focuses on the two years she spent there, when her mettle was tested to and beyond her limits by the more local threat of social and behavioral breakdown, which brought her into many difficult situations.
One of a handful of women in a camp full of men, she was constantly threatened with sexual assault. She does not want to reveal the details. “I was always afraid, coming out with this book, that this would be what people would remember the most, and then what it would boil down to, because that’s what happens to women’s stories. Only then do they become “awesome,” she says. “But I also hope to develop empathy and fear; I want them to care that my character is in a dangerous place and be as scared for her as I was at the time. If the readers know, from the start, what is going to happen, it deprives him of this power.
Suffice it to say, she was an innocent overseas, completely unequipped to deal with the problems of life in a camp, unaware that many of her colleagues were numbing themselves with every drug they could put on. the hand. Looking back, she protects them. There’s a backlash of class anger in the book – about the media trying to monster these blue-collar workers for the entertainment of well-heeled readers, whose wealth saves them from having to brave such hells.
“I feel like when you talk about drug use and stuff, people lack sympathy, because they’re making a lot of money, and it feels like it’s bad choice: you did this to yourself.” said Beaton. “But it’s a trap they’re falling into.”
Among those who fell was his boss, Ryan – a young father and “one of the good guys” – who became increasingly erratic at work before one day disappearing without a trace. She caught up with him years later via Facebook and checked him out for memoirs. “Yes, there were pamphlets advertising a helpline but they were worthless. These people were not trained to deal with the reality of people in crisis. And there were a lot of people in crisis,” she says. “Then because of the camp culture, when they leave the job they’re just walked out of your life, which is traumatic in itself, and as soon as they leave the site, the parent companies are cleared of any responsibility.” This is the story of migrant workers all over the world.
One of the challenges was to portray boredom without becoming boring: she had to find a shape for the story that couldn’t be relationship-oriented, because people were always moving forward. “Boredom is one of the things that eats away at the mental health of people living in the camps,” she says. “You go to work and you do the same thing every day. You live in this small room. If you’re a woman, you can’t use the gym without all the men stuck in the doorway staring at you.
His first one-year contract predated social media and there was no working internet. Surprisingly, she returned for a second stint in a different camp, this time in administration, after working for a year at a maritime museum in Victoria, but by then things had changed. “I came out of a place where I felt completely isolated and couldn’t write. I went back to the one that had a good internet connection in your room at night, so I was doing my comic online. It was something that gave me joy and made me feel like myself, when sometimes you didn’t feel like yourself at work, because people reduced you to everything they saw in front of them.
His time at the museum gave him the idea to create historical vignettes of Hark! The Vagrants, and the hobby of creating your own rudimentary website to display them. Soon after, they started selling, as they have since. It’s an unusual achievement, in a world of comics where most authors depend on other sources of income. That’s one of the reasons why there are so few comics about blue-collar life, she suggests.
“I’m an anomaly and I owe a lot to when I started,” she says. “The internet was still small enough that people were going to people’s websites to read stuff, which they don’t do anymore. They were looking for new voices in comics. I called myself a new voice, because that I was doing this kind of esoteric stuff in niche comics, but they were broad enough for people to respond to. I struck a chord.”
She moved to New York, found an agent and joined a collective of women designers, Pizza Island. “We all happened to be women, but people were like, ‘Wow, women doing comics in a room.’ And for some reason that also touched a nerve. There was a vision of us as something more than a bunch of people with our headphones on. We even had someone ask us if they could do a reality show about us.
But after several years of paying too much rent and having her bike stolen, she decided to return to Canada, first to Toronto, then to her family in Nova Scotia, where – thanks to the Internet – no one no longer need to leave. make a life. She’s since branched out into children’s picture books, bringing her quirky humor to stories of an ambitious princess and her unfortunate farting pony and a spoiled baby who behaves like a king. Their bright colors are a million miles from the dark hues of the Ducks, the story she had to tell. She has daily WhatsApp conversations with the Pizza Island gang. Motherhood is what they talk about the most now, she says. “I’ll probably complain about potty training later today.”
Ducks: two years in the oil sands by Kate Beaton is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply