The Next Chapter·Q&A

Kate Beaton's affecting Ducks dives into the lonely life of labour in Alberta's oil sands

The Nova Scotia cartoonist and author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the themes of loneliness, survival and misogyny in her new graphic memoir. Ducks is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist.

'It was borne of the fact that these camps and the work environments were outside of regular society'

Ducks is a graphic novel by Kate Beaton. (Drawn & Quarterly)
Kate Beaton talks to Shelagh Rogers about her graphic memoir, Ducks.

Kate Beaton's latest book Ducks is a nuanced graphic memoir of her time living and working in Alberta's oil patch.

As a young woman, cartoonist Kate Beaton left her home in Cape Breton to find work, a time-worn story for many people in Atlantic Canada. "Away" was the place to make money. A 21-year-old Kate wanted to pay off her student loans, so she headed down the road to the oil sands. Life was hard, and eventually loneliness, boredom, isolation set in. 

This was in addition to the misogyny she encountered that made it even harder. But Ducks is a layered and multihued memoir. 

Beaton launched her career by publishing the comic strip Hark! A Vagrant online. The sassy, historical webcomic gained a following of 500,000 monthly visitors and was eventually turned into a bestselling book.

Ducks is on the Canada Reads 2023 longlist. The final five books and the panellists who chose them will be revealed on Jan. 25, 2023.

Ducks  was named one of CBC Books' top Canadian comics of 2022 and was also one of two Canadian books on Barack Obama's list of favourite books of 2022

Beaton spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing her graphic memoir Ducks.

Shelagh Rogers: When did you understand that you would have to leave Cape Breton to find work?

Kate Beaton: That's a deeply ingrained idea in Cape Breton. We have been exporting labour for so many generations there, way back beyond my grandparents' time. I grew up listening to songs and reading stories about migrant labour before I had a complete understanding about the cycle of that kind of work. 

I grew up listening to songs and reading stories about migrant labour before I had a complete understanding about the cycle of that kind of work.

You sing [those songs] as a child without knowing fully that this is the life that you're going to step into. And then when you do realize it, you just accept it.

Interior pages from Kate Beaton's graphic memoir Ducks. (Drawn and Quarterly)

What did you think you'd be walking into?

Honestly, I didn't know. Because growing up in Cape Breton, we had lived through so much economic collapse by that point. In this working class environment, the message is that any job is a good job.

Going out there, I knew that I wasn't going to have a good time. I knew I wasn't gonna like it, but I knew that I should be grateful for the job I was going to get. The fact that somebody was going to hire me and give me money was the good thing. Back home, they were calling it things like 'money jail.' 

Back home they were calling it things like 'money jail.'

It doesn't evoke a sense of enjoyment, right? But I didn't know the details in any way. What I expected was to work for money that I should be grateful to have. And I never expected a corporation to treat me nicely, but I also didn't know exactly what I was stepping into.

You and the other women — and there aren't very many — receive unwanted male attention. As you look back on it, Kate, how do you see that behaviour?

It was borne of the fact that these camps and the work environments were outside of regular society. There was a difference between the work environments that were connected to the town and the ones that were in a camp environment.

In the work environments that had people going home to their families every night from the town of Fort McMurray, there was less of that. And in the work environments where people lived in the camps, there was much more.

There was a difference between the work environments that were connected to the town and the ones that were in a camp environment.

And that speaks a lot to how we act and how we treat each other and how these workspaces are built and what happens there.

Interior pages from Kate Beaton's graphic memoir Ducks. (Drawn and Quarterly)

What did that do to your sense of yourself and your sense of security?

I very much lost myself the first time that I was in those camp environments. There are so many different shades of the way that people treat you.

If you don't know how to handle it, if you've never encountered it before, you tend to just close in on yourself and absorb it.

And most of the way the people talk to you is not worth responding to.

You become unaware of the danger around you because it's so casual. They don't even see you as a real person anymore.

Your only value as a person is your work. Everything else that makes you who you are and everything else that people value in you goes off to the side.

It's outside of regular society. It's very cut off, very isolated. Your only value as a person is your work. Everything else that makes you who you are and everything else that people value in you goes off to the side. And it isn't true for everybody. Some people thrive and some people are fine, but other people are not fine.

Did you have anyone to talk to?

We're speaking in generalities. There are people there who are kind. There are people there who are your friends.

And there are people there who are cruel, but there are people there who are not. There are people there who are from my home. There are people that are looking out for me, who go out of their way to look out for me.

It's too easy to dismiss the whole thing as inhuman. But that's not how human society works either. It's all shades of grey.

There are some that I work with every day, and they become my friends because they obviously know me as a person.

It's too easy to dismiss the whole thing as inhuman. But that's not how human society works either. It's all shades of grey. And there are other women there, so you get to know them as well.

At one point a reporter calls you and wants to ask you questions, and you're very conflicted about talking with her. What were you thinking and feeling?

I was so excited at first because I had done some comics and they were almost proto-Ducks comics. They were about living in the camps and stuff. And I put them online with an independent paper and then I got this call and they wanted to talk about living in the camps or working in the sands. 

Some people are interested in the camps solely to talk about how depraved it is in a salacious way.

I felt very special. And then I got on the phone and it seemed like they wanted just to trash talk the men and that was it. Some people are interested in the camps solely to talk about how depraved it is in a salacious way.

Interior pages from Kate Beaton's graphic memoir Ducks. (Drawn and Quarterly)

And how did you feel about that at the time?

I started feeling so defensive with people because I was getting this call from somebody in an office in Toronto.

I was here living in the camps with these people. And I was like, 'You don't understand this life at all. You didn't have to make the choice to come live here. You don't know the pressures anybody is under.'

It's not that bad men come to the camps, it's that people come to the camps. And either they are able to handle it, or they can't — and it's heartbreaking.

Like I said in the book, a lot of people think that if they had to come here, that they wouldn't behave the same way, and they would because that's what the place does to you. That is what the camps do.

I've seen people come and change. It's not that bad men come to the camps, it's that people come to the camps. And either they are able to handle it, or they can't — and it's heartbreaking.

Kate Beaton's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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