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Kate Beaton’s graphic memoir ‘Ducks’ gives insight into working at Alberta’s oilsands

"Jeopardy" champ Mattea Roach, shown in a handout photo, defended graphic memoir "Ducks" by Kate Beaton on CBC's "Canada Reads" this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ handout - CBC

When Kate Beaton migrated west to work in Alberta’s oilsands, she didn’t know what to expect — other than a job that would allow her to pay down her student loans.

Those making the move now, some 15-plus years after the comics artist worked in Fort McMurray, have more information about the industry thanks to social media, she said.

“If you don’t have a personal connection to the actual area, the location, or the workforce, or the people that travel back and forth and work there, then it’s harder to have an understanding of day-to-day life there,” Beaton said in a phone interview from her home in Cape Breton.

With “Ducks,” Beaton’s graphic memoir that’s now competing in Canada Reads, she sought to show people what the experience can really be like.

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The 430-page retelling of her two years in the oilsands portrays the industry as one burdened by misogyny and corporate interests, but also a place where employees can find unexpected acts of kindness and a tight-knit community.

This year’s slate of Canada Reads contestants are fighting to be named the one book “to shift your perspective.” Beaton’s book is being defended by “Jeopardy” super-champion Mattea Roach.

“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,” Roach said on the radio show “Q” ahead of Canada Reads’ Monday premiere.

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None of that was being discussed when Beaton graduated from university with a pile of debt that she decided she would try to dig herself out of in the oilsands.

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She worked first as a tool crib attendant, fetching tools and equipment for other workers, and then in a warehouse office.

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“Everybody around where I was living was going there for work. It was kind of a given that was just where the jobs were, and where the opportunity was,” Beaton said.

With “Ducks” she sought to lay bare the realities that came along with that opportunity.

Once she arrived in Alberta, she got a job at the base plant before moving to one of the camps — a better-paying position that was also more isolated. She worked long hours with few days off, and she pegged the ratio of men-to-women at roughly 50-to-one.

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The book presents sexual harassment as the norm, and gendered violence as a common occurrence. Beaton described male co-workers hitting on her, ogling her and evaluating her appearance, making her feel like an object rather than a human.

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Towards the end of Beaton’s tenure at the oilsands, news broke that 500 ducks had died in a pond of toxic sludge, bringing into stark relief the environmental impact of the industry.

“It also serves as a metaphor that takes you through the whole book, which is that these ducks were migratory birds that landed in a place that they thought was safe, and it wasn’t, and they paid the price,” Beaton said. “And you have a whole migratory workforce of people who are doing the same thing, and some people end up flying, but other people do not fare so well.”

In the years since Beaton worked in Alberta, fewer people are making the migration. The boom town of Fort Mac is no longer quite so booming, with fewer available jobs as the industry changes.

“You expect those boom and bust economies to boom and bust. They go up and down. But there are human lives attached to those economic trends,” she said.

Still, according to Statistics Canada, roughly 138,000 people were employed in Alberta’s upstream energy sector in 2022.

Beaton said she wants “Ducks” to help Canadians learn about what some of those people’s jobs are like, but her goal isn’t to impart a specific lesson.

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“I went through these two years working and I left with a lot more questions than I had when I got there,” Beaton said. “I don’t want people to take anything away, particularly … I just want to show people something that they don’t know.”

Canada Reads runs on CBC from Monday through Friday, with one book being eliminated by the panellists each day.

Actor-filmmaker Keegan Connor Tracy will argue on behalf of Michael Christie’s “Greenwood,” while Yukon-based bhangra artist and educator Gurdeep Pandher will defend “Hotline” by Dimitri Nasrallah. TikToker Tasnim Geedi will champion “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and the actor-director Michael Greyeyes will represent “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel.

The debates will take place at 10:05 a.m. ET on CBC Radio, with livestreams available online and on CBC Gem. They’ll be broadcast later in the day on CBC TV.

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