An image from "Ducks," a graphic novel by Kate Beaton, depicting the "Highway of Death."

‘Wherever the work is, we’re all going’: Graphic novelist on working in Alberta’s tar sands

“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” a graphic novel by Kate Beaton, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, tells the story of leaving home and joining thousands of others to work in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. Beaton joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about her experience.

The World
“Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands,” by Kate Beaton, tells the story of working in Alberta’s tar sands, along with thousands of others from her native Cape Breton. Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly

It is an age-old story — leaving home for work to build a better future for yourself and your family.

It’s a story that graphic novelist Kate Beaton knows well. Beaton is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and her story took her almost clear across Canada, more than 3,000 miles west to northern Alberta, to join thousands of others who also left their homes for a better economic future.

Her latest book, a graphic novel, is “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.”

Beaton joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about her compelling personal story of working in the Athabasca oil sands of Alberta, where these boom economies have led to tremendous environmental and human cost. 

Growing up in Cape Breton, Beaton said that she wasn’t aware of the tar sands when she was very small. 

It was a place that people started going to in the ’80s and ’90s, but not in the numbers that made a real difference until maybe the late ’90s, when it really started booming,” she said.

“And then everybody started going. And they were running news stories around here about how, you know, the streets were emptying and the classrooms had empty desks because they were gone to the oil sands.” 

Marco Werman: Symbolically, you kind of illustrate that with the empty chairs around the dining tables in Cape Breton. 
Kate Beaton: But that’s not new here. We have had many generations of labor migration to wherever the engines of capitalism have been running to, to the Boston States’ auto factories booming in the 70s, and in Ontario and Detroit, a mining boom in Sudbury.
So the “Boston States,” is that what Cape Bretoners call the US? Or New England, specifically?
It’s kind of New England. They would land around Boston and they’d call it the Boston States. Yeah, I had a grand aunt who worked as a maid, for instance, in a mansion in Boston. But that was the place to go for work. And they would work there and they’d send money home. And that pattern would repeat wherever the big job booms were. And I sort of fell in step with a pattern that had been going on and on for all this time. I thought nothing of going to the oil sands because people have been doing this where I’m from for so long.
“Ducks” takes place mostly in Alberta, but you often take readers back to Cape Breton in the book. Almost like a dream. Like one minute you’re in the industrial work camp, the next you have your feet in the sand of a pristine beach, almost like your body and mind are in two places at once. What do you think is the long-term effect on workers being split like that? How did it affect you?
Oh, it had a big effect on me, for sure. You were split. And so most of your life is in this work camp, where you are not living as your full self. You’re cut off from things and you’re counting down the days to when you’re home. And when you’re in the camp, you’re isolated. And the sense of being totally outside of society is a very real feeling, that you’re the shadow population.
The book is called “Ducks,” and the meaning is revealed later on in the book when the international news media picks up the story that hundreds of migratory ducks were killed after they landed in one of these tailing ponds at one of these mining sites. Why was that moment so meaningful to you that you decided to give this book the title “Ducks”?
Well, the metaphor is apt. These were migratory animals who landed in a pond that they thought was a safe space, that they thought was natural. And it ended up being toxic. It was a dangerous place for them to land. And you could make the same argument for some of the people who landed there. This incident with the ducks was the first time that I saw the oil sands on national and international news. You know, you could sort of see the eyes of the world taking a look at the oil sands or going, “Oh, God, that’s bad,” you know, “We don’t like that.” These ducks all died. And I had seen people die — 2008 was a particularly bad year for accidents on Highway 63, which was nicknamed the Highway of Death.
Graphic depiction of ducks flying through a white sky.
The graphic novel, “Ducks: Two Years in the Oils Sands,” by Kate Beaton, tells the compelling personal story of leaving home in Cape Breton to work in Alberta’s tar sands. Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly
And that’s a highway that connects some of the living areas with these mines?
Yes, that’s right. It’s the highway that goes from Edmonton to to Fort McMurray. And also, at the same time, there is a part of the book where a Cree elder, Celina Harpe, is talking about how there is increased incidences of cancer, rare cancers in the Indigenous communities around Fort McMurray. And the response to that is sort of  — silence. But the ducks got all this attention because of maybe how cinematic it was. And so that always stuck with me. That the human cost went under the radar.
Homesickness is a major theme of your book, and one way it manifests is through music, I noticed. Cape Breton has so much great music, trad-modern fiddlers like Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac. We asked you for a song that brought back feelings of home when you were away in Alberta. Who are we hearing and why does this music resonate with you? 
You’re hearing John Allan Cameron sing “Headed for Halifax.” He’s singing about leaving Cape Breton for work. “I’m heading for Halifax to see what’s to spare in the way of some work. And if there’s nothing there, then it’s Toronto out West or God only knows where.” That was true before I was born. It’s true now. You know, I listened to this growing up and I knew, that’s going to be me. And it was. This is the life in Cape Breton. But he’s he’s also singing, you know, “Wherever I go, there’s bound to be someone from home,” because that is also true. Wherever the work is, we’re all going. We’re going together. 

 This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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