Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

This entry is part 20 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag. Quite a lag, as it’s 2024, but hey, that’s how it is. 

Ducks is a sizeable autobiographical graphic novel about Kate Beaton’s time working at the Alberta oil sands projects, and what she learned living and working there. What she did learn living and working there is… well, it’s pretty heavy going, as you will intuit if you know about the ducks to which the title refers. In 2017, a judge ruled that Syncrude (one of Beaton’s employers in the book) was responsible for the deaths of 1600 ducks, basically because they’d left a tailings pond full of toxic gunk just sitting out, with no deterrents to ducks landing in it

The toxicity—literal but especially metaphorical—of the oil sands project is a major theme in Ducks, but Beaton reveals it the way she discovered it for herself: on a day-by-day basis. The literal toxicity gets mentioned a few times, in passing, but the metaphorical toxicity is much more foregrounded. If you think the ducks that died in the tailings pond were poisoned by the landscape, Beaton seems to say, you should see what it does to the men working in these places. Not all men, she ensures we understand, but many of them, and clearly far too many.  

A major thread for Beaton is the corrosive effect of social and gender isolation at the oil sands sites. The unthinking sexism that jolts her at the start of her time in Alberta is quickly eclipsed as she discovers the specific social illnesses that emerge when you have too many men and not enough women in a place for an extended period of time. Along the way, there is sexual violence—which Beaton, again, goes to pains to remind us happens in other settings too—and heartbreak, disappointment and frustration, but also sometimes moments of surprising kindness—often from others who hail from Cape Breton, like Beaton herself—and occasionally heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of her coworkers. 

As I read Beaton’s account, a line from came to my mind from an author whose name I cannot recall, about the challenge of never being able to be a subject in yourself, because you’re always the object of other people’s (stereotype-driven) stories. Beaton definitely faces that kind of challenge, with many men in the camps viewing her primarily as a potential love interest rather than a colleague, and with the most ridiculous rumors circulating at the slightest indication of her being involved with someone. This comes to a head twice: once, on the pages where Beaton relays her experiences with sexual violence, and the second time when she’s back in Cape Breton and crosses paths with someone she knew from the oil sands. (The second instance is a confrontation between Beaton’s experience, and the social norms her friends—who never worked at the oil sands—still rightfully take for granted.) 

Through it all, there’s the oil companies, who set up these workplaces this way. Who track of “lost time incidents” (and celebrate avoiding them) because employee injuries and deaths are frequent enough that they’d be embarrassing to publicly track. Who schedule people for shifts so long that many workers resorting to relying on drugs to get through them, and who grudgingly acknowledge employees’ drug problems only when absolutely necessary. Who poison not just their their workers and the creatures of the wilderness (including those ducks), but also the landscape itself, not to mention the First Nations communities unfortunate enough to be living near them. I think it’s fair to say that Beaton’s not afraid to expose the moral repugnance of how these companies operate, and that’s refreshing in part because she knows from the inside just how brutish and morally bankrupt these companies are, regardless of how well they admittedly pay their workers.  

Although it doesn’t map perfectly, I found a fair number of themes reminded me of life as an expat in Korea. The economic refugeeism among oil company workers felt comparable to that of expats, and there are a notable numbers of Atlantic Canadians here, for starters. Then there’s (less extreme, but notable) the gender disparity among expats here; the environment of pervasive, unapologetic, and unthinking sexism and misogyny; the sense of social isolation and constant experience of being reduced to a stereotyped caricature during interactions with people on a daily basis. That’s not to say the experiences are perfectly parallel, of course, but the emotional corrosion that builds up in the story felt familiar, even while it’s also all intersectional. Hell, some incidents that personally I’ve seen occur that could have been straight from the pages of Beaton’s memoir, and it was a bit surreal at times to see that. Even absent that parallel, I would have found Ducks eye-opening and worth reading, but it’s always especially worthwhile when I find something that helps me gain perspective on the world as I experience it. I think on some level it’s what we’re supposed to do with narratives like this—not center ourselves so completely as to eclipse the original author and their narrative, but to apply the insights that the book grants one to one’s own daily experiences—in order to see one’s own life through new eyes, so to speak. The ending of Beaton’s book, especially, signals a warning: being through something like this changes you, not always for the better, and returning home may just make you feel the corrosion caused by your experiences that much more clearly and consciously. 

But even if you can’t relate—or maybe especially if you can’t—it’s a very worthwhile read, and I recommend it. 

I was able to get this book using Libby: the National Library of Korea has ebook lending rights to the ebook edition. Again I say, the National Library’s a lifeline here. 


Series Navigation<< Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye<i>The Ice is Coming</i>, <i>The Dark Bright Water</i>, and <i>Journey Behind the Wind</i> by Patricia Wrightson >>

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