by Kate Beaton
“I learn that I can have opportunity or I can have home. I cannot have both, and either will always hurt.”
Content Note: Sexual assault
Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant presents her first full-length graphic narrative in this memoir of the two years she spent working in the Alberta oil sands in order to pay off her student loans. Born and raised by the sea in Cape Breton, Beaton joined the many Atlantic Canadians seeking their fortune in the landlocked West while always longing for home. Heading first to the oil town of Fort McMurray and then into the camps of the oil companies, Beaton discovers the culture shock of being one of only a few women working in the industry. While she eventually pays off her loans in less time than it took to earn her degree, the real price is one she continues to reckon with.
Ducks makes for a somewhat grim read, dealing as it does with the double whammy of environmental devastation and sexual assault. The entire comic is drawn in greyscale, from the starkly beautiful landscapes of Cape Breton and Northern Alberta to the barren devastation of the oil sands, and even the aurora borealis and a rainbow. Beaton largely elides the first assault with four simple but effective pitch-black panels. The second time, slightly more is shown on page as she depicts herself getting up and walking away from her body while the attack takes place.
The oil town of Fort McMurray is filled with young families that were able to make a prosperous start on the largesse of the oil industry, but the town and the camps that surround it are also packed with lone men who have come from around the country to fill out the ranks. With little to do but work, the camps are a place of boredom, loneliness, isolation, and a self-reinforcing breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Drugs, alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment abound, but all are tolerated so long as they do not lead to a lost time incident that impacts the oil company. Over and over again, when Beaton finds the courage to share her story with other women, she hears one thing back: me, too.
Threaded throughout the narrative is the deep longing for home experienced by the many Atlantic Canadians forced to go west in order to find work to support their families. The camps are filled with refugees from the collapsed resource industries of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, be it mining or fishing. After experiencing constant harassment and two sexual assaults, Beaton is haunted by the idea that her own male relatives might have gone to the camps, and how the culture there would have affected them. She struggles to square this with the many moments of kindness she experiences when men from back home who know her family make a point to visit her or invite her into their homes.
Eventually Beaton succeeds in paying off her loans and saving up enough money to go home and make a proper go of her art, trying to leave the shadow of the oil sands behind. In the final panels of Ducks, she and her sister run into a man they knew at the camps while they’re out on the town with friends back home in Halifax. He speaks to them in a vulgar fashion, and when he leaves their friends are left stunned and appalled by his crass behaviour, but they are even more taken aback by the way Beaton and her sister simply accepted it as normal. And so Beaton concludes with the reminder that while you can quit the camps, you can never really leave them behind.
Ducks will be defended by Jeopardy champion Mattea Roach on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.
“This book is a window into so many critical conversations about the environment, about Indigenous land rights, about the student debt crisis and about gender relations. So there is an angle for every person to have their perspective shifted in some way.” -Mattea Roach
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