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Finding Humor, and Humanity, in Canada’s Oil Fields

In 2005, Kate Beaton was 21, with a brand new degree in history and anthropology, student loans she said felt like a foot on her neck, and few job prospects. Around her home in Cape Breton, a picturesque, wooded island in Nova Scotia, the joke was that everyone was “on pogie,” she said — on unemployment.

So she went west to the tar sands of northern Alberta, one of the world’s most environmentally destructive oil operations, where workers lived in barracks-like camps and there were far more men than women.

Her experience there, detailed in the graphic memoir “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” released September 13 by Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, was one of isolation and sexual harassment. It also gave her an insider’s look at a place and piece of Canadian history that few outsiders have ever seen.

“You know how some moments in your life, some memories, stay there and repeat themselves?” she asked. “A lot of my time in the oil sands was like that. It seemed like a book I would always make, otherwise it would always be floating around in my head.”

The book is a clear departure from Beaton’s best-selling cartoon series, ‘Hark! A Vagrant,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list of hardcover graphic books for five months. In fact, the projects are so different that you’ll be surprised they came from the same person.

In “Hark,” Beaton punctuated everything from superheroes (“The Adventures of Sexy Batman”) to 19th-century child labor practices (“Plus, It’s Cheap”). Beaton’s irreverent take on historical and literary figures was praised by The Times (“No one has ever gotten so much comedy from the omission of punctuation”), while The Paris Review noted her “vibrant pen and waddling, sharp wit”.

How could someone who can write an insanely funny three-panel comic about Benjamin Franklin (“What a Stupid Comic I Have Made”) end up writing a 430-page epic (with maps!) about the Alberta oil storm, and her role in the?

In “Ducks,” Beaton ditches the comedy — well, not all — and lets her story take center stage.

Beaton grew up in Mabou, an unlikely place for a future comic book writer and de facto literary critic. The city had no bookstores, let alone comic shops.

“We had a bookmobile,” she said. “All the books would smell weird because they were about 200 years old.” As for online resources, Beaton had access to the Internet a few times a week, in her school’s “Internet Class”.

“I don’t want to sound like I’ve been living in a garbage can,” she said with a laugh. “We just didn’t have the same access to a lot of things as other people. So I just took whatever came my way.”

Beaton filled her time with drawing. “She was always drawing and scribbling, before she even went to school,” says Marion Beaton, Kate’s mother, who makes several appearances in “Ducks.” “She was always doing something creative.”

Growing up in a comic book and animation vacuum, Beaton developed a unique drawing style and sense of comedic timing. “I’ve never seen anime or Sailor Moon,” she said, “so I couldn’t have copied that style even if I wanted to.”

After high school, she enrolled at Mount Allison University, where she met Lindsay Bird, a major in religious studies. The two lived in the same dorm and worked together on the school newspaper, with Bird as the photo editor and Beaton on the comics page. “She was just really cool,” Bird said. “Very sharp, very witty, very observant, one of those people who could make really funny observations about a room or a party.”

The two quickly became friends. When Beaton went to Fort McMurray, Alberta, after graduation, she helped Bird get a “camp job” there, one of the site’s more sought-after features. “My religious studies degree got me nowhere, so after about a year I said, OK, I’m out,” Bird said. “She knew that world much better than I did, and she was very protective of me.”

Beaton had come to Fort McMurray at the height of one of Alberta’s oil booms, when the promise of good wages had sparked a rush of workers from across Canada, particularly from provinces like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the collapse of coal and fishing industries had wreaked havoc on local economies.

“The joke one guy told me was that Fort McMurray was Newfoundland’s second-largest city,” says Chris Turner, author of “The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.”

Most workers during the boom were men. At the oil sands, Beaton entered an environment where male workers routinely lurked for women, and worse; many thought nothing of talking about women’s bodies at work, including hers. The experience stayed with Beaton. “If someone asked me about Fort McMurray, I would start talking, and they would say, ‘Please stop talking!’ They didn’t want to hear it.”

Beaton started working on “Ducks” in 2016. She looked through dozens of old letters, emails and photos to refresh her memory, and spoke to dozens of colleagues and colleagues in the camps to collect their side of the matter and get their permission to write about them (many names in the book have changed).

In one instance, she reached out to a man who went into a tailspin after his divorce and was then canned; in another, she contacted the family of a man who died in an accident at work. “That’s such a weird call to get,” she said. “But that’s better than having them read the book and say, ‘Hey, that’s my brother who died in 2008.'”

Bird was one of the first people Beaton approached. The two had many shared memories, including the time Bird, just arriving in Fort McMurray, went to the company’s dining room with Beaton and noticed several male employees trying to look up her skirt. “It was shocking,” Bird recalls.

The incident made it into Beaton’s book, where the men, brought to life by the artist’s unmistakable pen, appear as grinning, cartoonish peasants. It also made its way into Bird’s 2019 book “Boom Time,” a collection of poems about her own experiences in the oil sands. “We talked about several things that had lodged in our brains that had been memorable or uncomfortable, and that was one of the first,” said Bird, who is now a CBC journalist.

One of Beaton’s concerns is that her book will lead to stereotypes about Alberta’s oil sandworkers. The common perception, Turner said, is of an immature geek, a single man in his twenties who gathers there for the easy money, then blows his paycheck on drugs and booze (and later a fully loaded Ford F-150).

“The expression used in the Alberta oil industry used to be piggies,” Turner said. “Her story makes it clear that that wasn’t the only thing that happened there.”

Indeed, while the book has its fair share of creeps and crazies, there are also the guys who welcome Beaton and show her the tricks of the trade; the family man who brings her cookies for Christmas because she works on vacation and outside the home; the old-timers who hope their bodies don’t collapse on them before they can retire.

“There were loads of people just working there and not bothering anyone,” she said.

In addition to “Ducks,” Beaton recently completed work on the first season of “Pinecone & Pony,” an animated series streaming on Apple TV+ based on her 2015 children’s book “The Princess and the Pony” about a fat, farting pony and the mixed princess who loves it. She is currently working on a series of short fiction comics set in Cape Breton, but not starring herself.

And starting next month, Beaton will embark on a book tour of ten cities to promote “Ducks,” her first such tour since 2016, when she began promoting “Princess.”

Years before that tour, for “Ducks” and “Princess,” before the success of “Hark! A Vagrant,” Beaton made one of her very first author appearances at the Small Press Expo in Maryland. Beaton spurred a whim at the table of a friend and was surprised to see a long, squiggly line of fans waiting to get their hands on poorly made photocopies of her cartoons.”I must have looked stunned,” she said.

This time, Beaton said, the circumstances are different. She’s different.

“I have had two children. I haven’t seen the outside world in years. I now have a dog and two cats and five chickens,” she said. “Life has changed since the last time people saw me.”

Still, she added, “I expect to look numb again, just like in the beginning.”