Kate Beaton is known for her long-running Hark! A Vagrant webcomic series (RIP), which I, like many others, first encountered through an excellent reaction meme adapted from an excellent comic.
So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a comic so bright wouldn’t also have a shadow, which in this case is, unfortunately, her experience in the years following her graduation from college, which she details in her new graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.
Beaton, who comes from a small town on the eastern coast of Canada whose current export is its people, had taken out student loans to get her bachelor’s in art. She decides to pay it off as quickly as possible by getting a job in the oil sands of northern Alberta. The industry was a man’s world, she knew, and was warned, but could not have possibly been prepared for what awaited her in those lonely worksites.
Getting little comments about her youth or gender stereotypes doesn’t seem out of line, nor does the occasional hitting on. But Beaton doesn’t expect to have workers lined up around the building, almost all coming just to have a look at the new woman in camp. When she asks for a less visible position to avoid the ogling and sexual harassment, she is reprimanded. Despite changing camps and positions multiple times, she finds little relief from the constant barrage of invasive questions, propositioning, and demands for her smiles and attention.
Things improve somewhat when she finds her cousin, and when her sister and friend come out to get jobs of their own—office jobs, which Beaton hopes are kinder by virtue of being slightly removed from the bulk of the workforce. But when Beaton finds a job listing at a museum in Victoria, British Columbia, she immediately takes it. There, she finds joy and purpose for the first time since she came out west. But even with her part-time museum job and the laundry list of other part-time gigs she takes to try to make ends meet, she can’t keep up on her student loan payments, and she’s forced to go back to the oil fields.
Ducks is a doorstop of a book, but it’s also emotionally heavy. Its 430 pages are necessary, though, to contain all of the themes that course throughout it. One of the more obvious is Beaton’s experience with sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault on the job. It’s easy to vilify the men surrounding her, and especially after the first few incidents, I found myself wary of every male character that appeared—doubly so if they seemed friendly. Beaton is kinder, in a way. While the behavior is inexcusable, these harassers and abusers are transformed by the loneliness of their surroundings and the bleakness of their situation as much as Beaton is. It’s easy to call them bad guys, she says, but most men in that situation would also fall into those same patterns of behavior if they were also far away from their families, risking life and limb for a paycheck, and being looked down upon by the wider world because of it. And it’s not all men—she’s sure to point that out, too. But the men who aren’t dangerous are forgettable. They stay in the background; they avoid being burned into her memory because they aren’t a threat. There’s some survivor bias of a sort here, and Beaton makes sure we know it.
The steep financial stakes that make her stay (or return) is another strong theme. Beaton does manage to pay off her student loans in two years of working in the oil sands, and she’s one of the lucky ones. Few, if any, of the workers are there by choice. For some, the oil sands are a last chance after their old industries have shut down, downsized, or otherwise kicked them to the curb. Many are sending home large chunks of their paychecks to support a wife and kids they rarely see. Several dropped out of school young, some to the degree that they’re nearly illiterate. Most of her coworkers are also from the middles of nowhere, and several are even from her little community. Like her, they’ve come west to do dangerous work because of a lack of economic opportunities back home. Unlike her, few get out.
Of course, a book about working for oil-mining operations would be remiss to not acknowledge the fraught environmental impact of the work. Early on, one character makes a case that gas injection is more ecologically friendly than blowing or digging big holes in the earth. Much later, Beaton realizes the land her current company is mining is part of First Nation grounds, and that those people see their work as nothing more than desecration of holy land. When a flock of ducks gets caught in a polluted tailing pond from another site, Beaton’s company makes them put up duck deterrents—not effective ones, exactly, just enough of a show that if it did happen to them, the company could say they did all they could to prevent a wildlife tragedy. And when Greenpeace activists sabotage facilities on another site, Beaton and her colleagues know it’s not the oil company president who will be making the dangerous repairs.
Because as important as concerns about the environment are, they are entwined tightly with legitimate concerns about conditions for the employees who are doing that ecologically damaging work. The repair on the Greenpeace-sabotaged pipes will be dangerous. In every orientation, Beaton has to sit through a safety video, which other workers sleep through. She’s required to wear personal protective equipment, but the company also buys only the cheapest gear and not nearly enough of it—except for when the site is getting an inspection. A company boasts about how many millions of man-hours it’s had without an accident that results in work time lost, but stretches the definition of how severe that kind of accident is. The bottom line, she tells us, is that the companies are only concerned with the bottom line, and everyone and everything else is only a means to that end.
I’ve gushed too long about Ducks, though I’ve only said half of what I want to. It’s one of those books you can tell straight away will stay with you for a long time—in no small part to how thoroughly Beaton sticks the landing. When I was thumbing through to see how many pages it was, I caught a glimpse of the last page, and became preemptively disappointed at how anticlimactic it seemed. But when I got there for real, I closed the cover, stunned at the power of the last few panels. Ducks is funny and sincere, but it’s also angry and angering, and it should be required reading for anyone concerned with misogyny, workplace safety, environmental justice, or the economic barriers created by something that was supposed to tear down class-based walls.