In 2005, in order to pay off her student loans, Kate Beaton left her home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to work on the Alberta oil sands, a vast region in Canada that contains one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world. During this time, Beaton began writing “Hark! A Vagrant,” a witty, irreverent webcomic about history, literary figures and her own life. The beloved series has been collected into two bestselling books, Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Beaton’s first full-length graphic memoir, is a beautiful and nuanced account of her time working in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies. It directly addresses the sexual harassment and violence that she and others experienced in the oil sands, as well as the toxic masculinity that permeates the work camps.
We talked with Beaton about the difficulties of capturing the sometimes contradictory realities of such a complicated place.
You started posting “Hark! A Vagrant” 15 years ago. How have you changed as a writer and artist since then?
I’ve changed a lot. I was only 23 when I started making things that would be “Hark! A Vagrant.” I had gone through a lot in some ways, but I was very young and inexperienced, and I look at some of my old work and cringe at it, but this is the same for almost anyone making things in the public eye. Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.
Right now I’m 38, and it has been a long time since I was a fresh face on the comics scene. I’m more like the wallpaper or a worn-out chair, but I like being that. No one is surprised I’m here.
How did writing those comics affect your life in the work camps? Did you have any sense of how your career would unfold?
After I had comics in my life, working in the camps got easier, because I had this thing that was just for me. Before I had that, I lost myself. It was just work and people chipping away at you in a certain way. Then I had comics and I’d go home to my little camp room after work and draw them and put them online, and here I was in a work camp in the oil sands, very alone in many ways, and I was connecting to people who saw me for who I was through my work. I felt like myself. And I didn’t want to give that up or lose that.
As the book begins, you write about the tension between loving your home in Cape Breton and needing to leave it to find work. During your time in the oil sands, some of the most poignant, powerful moments—both good and bad—are the interactions you have with people from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Talk to me about how you feel about these places. Do you see this memoir as being about Cape Breton as well as about Alberta?
It makes sense that it is. Cape Breton has always exported workers. They leave for where the work is, and they leave together. To Boston, Sudbury, Windsor, Alberta—not always, but often you see it. And when they do, there is a shared history and a connection that is always happening.
My grandfather went out on harvest trains in the 1930s, from Nova Scotia to the prairies. There were 1,200 people on the train, he said, and there was one car for schoolteachers. Women. Along the way, the men smashed up the train and looted. “They were full of the devil,” he said. How do you think that car of women felt with those 1,200 men? I know how they felt.
You think your story is new, you think you have something new to say, but really it is all something you are born into. My mother’s family all went to work in the car factories of Windsor, and they would come visit in the summer. And I would watch my aunts go crying into the car to go back and Grandma go silently back into the house with her private sorrow, and I would know that’s going to be me someday—or rather, that this is the choice I will have to make, to stay or to go wherever the work is.
When it really was time for me to go, Alberta was where the work was, and I went. I thought nothing of it at all. And I had no idea, none at all, what I was doing. Then you come home and talk to your relatives about what happened when they left, and they all say the same thing: “We had no idea what we were doing.” “I’ve never been so cold.” “I’ve never been so lonely.” “Thank god I knew this other person from home.”
One of the many remarkable things about your memoir is its nuance: You write so honestly about a complicated place. As many readers will likely not have given oil mining much thought beyond “necessary jobs” or “climate destruction,” what do you hope they take away from reading Ducks?
Nuance is not a bad thing to take away. I think it is a book about empathy—however you want to take that, and whomever or whatever you think that comment is about. Then that is what it is about.
You convey so much emotion through your characters” facial expressions, images of massive equipment and views of the surrounding landscape, both natural and human. What’s your drawing process like when bringing scenes from your memory to the page?
Oh, I had a lot of visual references. I can’t just draw an excavator from memory! But I knew what I was looking for in references—that was memory. You see those images again, and you can really smell it and feel it, being out there. I just wanted people to feel like they were there.
There are so many people in the book—by my count, over 40 named characters! What are the challenges or joys of drawing so many different people?
The challenge was that I drew a lot of people the same! And my editors made me go back and change some of them because people were getting confused—haha! But when you have a bunch of guys in hard hats, safety glasses and safety vests, they do start looking alike. So that was challenging for sure. I was mostly concerned that I didn’t mess up on any of them and make people confused.
Since your time in Alberta, you’ve lived all over Canada, as well as in New York. Now that you’re back in Cape Breton, how does it feel to be home?
It feels natural. I liked being away in those places. I think it was a healthy thing. I learned a lot from being in cities like Toronto and New York. But I always felt like a peg on a board there too, like a thing that didn’t fit in the picture. Here, I feel like part of the painting.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self who has just arrived in Alberta? What would you say to other young women thinking about working in the oil sands?
My advice would be that you can actually ask for better money or apply for a better job. Someone told me that I wasn’t allowed to do either in the first year that I was there, and I believed them. And even the second year that I was there, I didn’t challenge the money that I was being paid, and I was in one of the lowest-paid tiers of people on site. I just didn’t know any better. And we are not really raised to know better or to ask for more when other people have no problem doing that.
Photo of Kate Beaton by Stephen Rankin Photography.