Canada Reads

Canada Reads contenders Mattea Roach and Kate Beaton bond over their history in the Maritimes

The author of Ducks and the Jeopardy! star who will be championing the graphic memoir got together to discuss work, the oil sands and their Maritime connections. The great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30, 2023!

The great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30, 2023

Jeopardy! Super-champ Mattea Roach will defend Ducks by Kate Beaton on Canada Reads 2023.

Ducks is a graphic memoir which follows two years in the Albertan oil sands for Cape Bretoner, Katie Beaton. After getting a job on the work sites there to pay off her student debt, she recounts her experiences with economic migration, sexism and environmental destruction through an illustrated narrative. Highlighting the ways in which humanity is often messy and vulnerable.

Roach, who loves reading graphic novels and nonfiction, was excited to champion Ducks, a memoir they feel deeply connected to as a young person navigating a post-university world.

Canada Reads will be taking place March 27-30, 2023. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC GemCBC Listen and on CBC Books

The debates will take place live at 10:05 a.m. ET (that's an hour earlier than in recent years). You can tune in live or catch a replay on the platform of your choice. You can see all the broadcast details here.

Beaton and Roach got together virtually to discuss Ducks before the debates on March 27-30. 

Mattea Roach: Hi, I'm Mattea Roach and I'm championing the graphic memoir Ducks on Canada Reads 2023. Kate Beaton, the author and artist, joins me now.

Hi Kate! How are you doing? 

Kate Beaton: Hi, I'm really good, thanks. 

An illustrated book cover featuring a woman standing on the steps of a truck in the oil sands.

MR: Amazing! I'm so glad that we can get the chance to have this conversation.

Ducks was actually the only book that I ever really considered. I had been wanting to read it outside of doing Canada Reads. I felt connected to the story initially, as somebody from the Maritimes who did move away. I think most Maritimers have these stories of migration and displacement, so that was something that immediately resonated with me. But there's so much else that's going on in this book that I felt like I connected with once I started reading it. 

Was there a moment where you decided this needs to be a book or a story that you wanted to tell in this form?

KB: I don't think there was any moment like that. It's my story and my memoir. But I always wanted to tap into that larger story that begins in the Maritimes and in the Atlantic provinces, this kind of migratory labour that has been going on here for many generations and that has affected so many lives in a deeply felt way. Then as soon as you get into that, you get into ideas about class and capitalism and so much more opens up.

I know that it's a natural exercise for a cartoonist to put things down this way. That's why you see so many autobiographical comics. It's a cathartic thing, a way to parse things that you feel very deeply.

There were memories of mine that had tumbled around in my mind so many times that they began separating themselves into panels, which is something that I think cartoonists do. Especially if I could do it in a way that rang true to people who lived these same stories. That was the most important thing, not to just put something out there, but to do it in a way that felt honest and real. 

MR: Seeing these memories as panels is so interesting to me because that makes total sense. That if you are so used to expressing thoughts in comic form, you would begin to just think that way. 

There's a lot of vulnerability in telling one's own story, regardless of what kind of story it is. But there's a lot of stuff in this book that is difficult to read and so I'm sure was also extremely difficult for you and for the people that you worked with to experience. How did it feel reflecting on that period of your life, knowing that you were going to be putting pieces of that out into the world? 

KB: It's funny because it takes so long to make a graphic novel. It took several years. So you're sitting with these intimate memories and sometimes painful ones for many months or days that you're writing it and then drawing different drafts of pages until the distance is great enough that you are looking at yourself as a character. The cumulative effect is that even though these things are hard and personal, they end up becoming somewhat distant when you're working with them in this kind of long process. And that made it a bit easier and perhaps even cathartic in its own way.

I did contact certain people in the book as well, because you're right, it's not just my story. And they were generous about letting me tell their story as well. I never got any pushback, even when the stories went into painful territory. And I was lucky that way, they could have shown me the door. 

There's a lot of vulnerability in telling one's own story, regardless of what kind of story it is.- Mattea Roach

MR: I'm sure people have their own ways of making decisions like that, of "Is this a story that I'm comfortable even being shared by someone else?" But I have to imagine that some of what you said earlier about it almost being a cathartic process, to think deeply about it and for people to hear the story of some of the things they experienced. I imagine maybe for some people that was part of why they felt it might be okay to participate in this or that it might be necessary or helpful for them even?

KB: Maybe. Also, it's hard for people to imagine when someone's coming up to them and saying, "I'm making this book," what the finished thing is going to be. I wanted to be responsible to them. I don't think anybody wants to open up a book and say, "Oh my God, that's me in there!" without having any kind of prior warning. I tried to get in touch with people as much as I could to let them know, "You're in here and I'm going to change your name and I'm going to change the way you look because I'm not that good of a cartoonist." 

MR: I think you're great, but I see what you mean. You're not doing realist photo portraits of people here.

KB: There's a lot of guys in hard hats with mustaches and safety goggles and my editors were like, "The readers are having a hard time telling these guys apart, you have to do a better job of defining their features" and I said, "That's what every old man from the Maritimes looks like!" 

MR: It's so true! 

We talked a little bit at the beginning of the conversation about how you were hoping that, specifically people who have had similar experiences to you, the people that you worked with even directly would feel like this book was a good representation. Beyond that, what would you want readers who don't have as direct a connection to your book to take away from your work? 

KB: In the Maritimes, there's a lot of points of connection to the oil sands. Everybody knows somebody who went out there to work and in places where there's less of a connection to the oil sands, there's no understanding of human life there. The day-to-day reality of people's lives is something that is not out there. You never hear any narratives about the people who work in those camps or on site. It's very rare to hear about issues that affect the Indigenous communities around the oil sands and when they do, they're buried in the news until the next time it comes up.

In the Maritimes, there's a lot of points of connection to the oil sands. Everybody knows somebody who went out there to work.- Kate Beaton

I wanted this book to go out there and open up that closed box that people don't know about. Everybody has their opinion about the oil sands and they're entitled to it, but they don't know about the human story that is there all the time. I hope that my book will also bring out more narratives from this industry and from around this industry because this is just my story but there is plenty to be told. 

MR: As I was reading Ducks, I felt like there was a way in for people who don't have that direct connection to feel moved by that story. I think because you're incorporating the stories of enough different folks that you worked with and this representation of what it feels like to be disconnected from people who were there with you and people who weren't.

When you're talking about the environmental degradation and the impact on Indigenous communities and all of these things, it's very abstract. I think a lot of the time, the way that we talk about it, it's this thing that's happening over there and we don't have to think about it that deeply because it's not our families that are affected, it's not our relatives that are working there.

KB: That's one area where I wish I could have expanded more in the narrative, the impact on Indigenous communities. I was very young and I didn't know that much at the time. I was hoping that once the book got out there would be more space for that conversation. I'm very grateful to Celina Harpe for letting me put her likeness and her words in the book to talk about the effects that the oil sands have had on the health and the environment of her community, which is Fort McKay, just in the shadow of all these gigantic corporations. The rare cancers that these Indigenous communities are experiencing and that this is something that's being denied by corporations and government. 

It is very Canadian for most people to just sort of look away and say that they're waiting for more proof or something like that. But there's no proof coming because nobody's looking. I don't think it's much of a leap even for people from Toronto or from anywhere else who have zero connection to the oil sands to empathize with and understand the power of corporations and of working conditions that dehumanize you because that's a working person's problem no matter where you are. 

But Fort McMurray is where people come to work. People with hope, a lot of immigrants, a lot of young families come to work there and still there is this image of this lawless town full of ne'er do wells. 

MR: Anytime I hear about, whether it's like a workplace or a government establishment that is so enclosed and opposed to people from outside coming in, it never leaves a great taste in my mouth. I'm sure that there's also serious security concerns and reasons why you need to keep people off worksites and such but to not even allow people who do work there to document their experience creates an environment that's so ripe for abuse.

KB: Yes. I mean you can't just let people onto an active oil site to walk around and fall in a hole or lose their leg. I understand the need for security. But even the workers who went there and came home, it's my experience that they don't have a lot to say and I didn't either. I didn't want to talk to people about it in depth. What was I going to say? I hated it, I experienced violence, I was lonely, I was harassed? I can't paint this bleak picture for everybody, but there were a lot of people who faltered and fell through cracks and there were other people that did alright. 

MR: To circle back to this whole thing of people getting their backs up and getting defensive. Just people who feel like, "Why are you coming after me for basically exercising my only option to make a living?" 

I think that's a real fear that a lot of people who still live in Fort Mac and who work in this industry seem to have. There's this real sense of resentment against the federal government, but also environmentalists, people from the East who haven't had to go out there. There's this notion of, "You're on your high horse about this and you don't care about me." That's what I liked about your book, you have this empathy for people that feel that way and are in that position and are demonstrating that you can have critiques about what this all represents without vilifying the people who go and make a living there. You can have empathy for the people who go do that while also recognizing this is a system that they should not be forced to work in. 

KB: It's not like this is a pro-oil sands book. It's neither. It's an account of my time there and the things that sat heavily with me afterwards. As far as a book to change your mind, I think that in order to enact change in a place, and Fort McMurray and the oil sands is a place that people do want to see change, I think that first you have to care about it in a real way. A lot of the time, people engage with puppet versions of the place. I hope that by reading my book, they will get under the surface a bit, because you want to get to know a place deeply in order to bring about change. You have to think about the reality, the harder truths which are contradictory and not easy. That is what my book presents, the messiness of humanity.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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