Working, Drawing in the Oil Sands

Reviewed by Rachel Jekanowski

On my first trip to Newfoundland (where I now live and teach), a cab driver drew me into conversation on our way to the airport. He said he drove taxis when summer tourists flooded the island between rotations in Fort Mac. Men like him yoked northern Alberta and Atlantic Canada together, he told me, travelling back and forth, following the jobs to support families back home. In the years since, I’ve had many more conversations with rotational workers, often aboard taxi cabs and airplanes, about working in the oil sands.


In her graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Kate Beaton offers her own perspective on working in this dangerous, highly politicized industry. Beaton, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, moved to northern Alberta in 2005 after graduating from Mount Allison University to pay off her student loans. Ducks follows Beaton as she works for several different companies between 2005 and 2008, recounting her daily routines and conversations with fellow workers, as well as the job’s physical hazards and the isolation of the temporary work camps. Ducks builds out from two earlier “scrolling webcomics about living and working at a tar-sands mine—‘Night Shift’ and ‘Ducks’” (Unrau 58). It also reflects Beaton’s signature animation style, recognizable from her collections of humorous historical comics Hark! A Vagrant (2011) and Step Aside, Pops (2015).


Alternatively funny and gut-wrenching, Ducks explores the ethical compromises people make when faced with economic survival, while centring on women’s experiences in this male-dominated industry. The memoir is divided into chapters, each of which focuses on a different location: Cape Breton, Fort McMurray, Syncrude’s operations at Mildred Lake and Aurora, and the Long Lake workcamp operated by Opti-Nexen. Beaton introduces these places with detailed illustrations, many of which extend across the page fold, rendering these industrial landscapes in black-and-white line drawings doused in blue-grey wash. Such “bird’s-eye” views of the earth scraped bare at Aurora and the billowing stacks of the Mildred Lake refinery may remind some readers of Edward Burtynsky’s famous photographs of the oil sands, or even of the eponymous waterfowl themselves. The memoir’s title alludes to the five hundred-or-so migrating ducks that landed in a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008, dying en masse and capturing the attention of national and international news. This disaster marks Beaton’s growing awareness of the oil sands’ complex environmental costs, and parallels the deadly threats posed to human residents and workers: mysterious skin welts, workplace accidents, unusually high rates of cancer.


Throughout Ducks, Beaton is surrounded by fellow workers from the Canadian East Coast. They are introduced by name at the start of each chapter, with their illustrated portraits arranged as in a family album. This technique works to humanize her fellow camp workers who, as Beaton notes in the memoir’s afterword, are often overlooked within today’s highly politicized conversations about oil and gas and the climate crisis (435). Through snippets of dialogue and brief glimpses into workers’ home lives, Beaton reveals a complex portrait of the oil sands’ human costs—and how economic pressures complicate relationships with home. In an early pane, for instance, a young Beaton, reflecting on her decision to move to Alberta, informs the reader that “[t]here is no knowing Cape Breton without knowing how deeply ingrained two diametrically opposed experiences are: A deep love for home, and the knowledge of how frequently we have to leave it to find work somewhere else” (12). This narrative thread interweaves Beaton’s conversations with other workers with her own motivations for seeking work. In one vignette from Aurora, Beaton’s younger self is surprised to learn that Ambrose, a middle-age mechanic from Newfoundland, used to work in the cod fisheries. “I’m still a fisherman,” he retorts, “I’m just here” (115). These exchanges prove to be powerful yet subtle reminders of the economic and social inequalities on which extractive industries depend to source their workers.


Beaton also levies particular criticism at the industry’s workplace culture, which fosters a bizarre culture of “workplace safety” while “hiding away the human wreckage” caused by mental health challenges, companies’ cost-cutting measures, and a hypermasculine environment (435). The mandatory “safety meetings” featuring extremely graphic workplace safety videos become one of Beaton’s running jokes. Beaton also pays particular attention to the rampant sexual harassment and interpersonal violence women experience in the overwhelmingly male workcamps. Even with this emphatic attention to gender and class, the memoir’s perspective remains constrained by whiteness. Beaton is aware of this shortcoming, stating that Ducks reflects her own ignorance of Indigenous rights and colonial violence in the early aughts. As she explains in her afterword, “I can only tell you about my oil sands, where my world was very small and very white” (436).


Amidst vignettes of life in the camps, Beaton’s emergence as a comics writer and illustrator becomes another prominent thread in the graphic memoir’s second half. As an example of petro-media—that is to say, a cultural text mediated by oil in form, content, or mode of production—Ducks fits into a larger cultural conversation about the impacts of extractive industries like oil and gas on Canadian settler society and Indigenous communities. Beaton was able to pay off her student debt by working in the oil sands, prompting the question of how these years shaped her career as a comics artist. Read in this light, Ducks serves as a mediation on the links between oil and art, and another example of the hidden ways that oil permeates contemporary culture.


Works Cited

Beaton, Kate. Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. Drawn & Quarterly, 2022.

Dennis Unrau, Melanie. “Founding Fathers (in a Tailings Pond).” Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, vol. 13, no.1, June 2022, pp. 55-79.

This review “Working, Drawing in the Oil Sands” originally appeared in Pasts, Presents, and Futures of Canadian Comics Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 249 (2022): 191-192.

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