Kate Beaton is a Cape Breton-based cartoonist. Her latest book is the graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, from which this essay and visual feature are adapted.
Everyone’s oil sands are different.
I was there for two years between 2005 and 2008, working for a number of different companies, at a number of different sites, and living in both sprawling temporary work camps and in the city of Fort McMurray. There is often a tendency to want to characterize the Northern Alberta oil sands as either entirely good or entirely bad – the jobs and profits versus the climate-rattling destruction. But during my time there, I learned you can have both good and bad at the same time in the same place, and the oil sands defy any easy characterization.
My experiences were very much coloured by their place in time – a time just on the doorstep of ubiquitous smartphones and social media, but not there yet. We were still largely unconnected compared to now. It was also a time of unprecedented population growth, relatively quiet around climate change, and record high oil prices, accompanied by an optimistic belief that the well of oil and money would never run dry.
This was also a time when discussion surrounding the mental health of workers – especially itinerant male workers in a hypermasculine environment like the oil sands work camps – barely existed. Camp life fosters a certain unique set of mental-health challenges in an environment that is probably the least suited to contend with them. The boredom, isolation, loneliness and depression add up for many – and, for some, are too much to bear. Few resources existed on site, and in reality, they were nothing more than lip service. Instead, the industry prized itself for millions of hours without lost-time incidents, while hiding away the human wreckage.
Of course, my experiences are heavily marked by my being a woman in a work force that was so overwhelmingly male. I have seen many people quick to become defensive against the suggestion that gendered violence exists in places like the oil sands. They may either work there and are proud of the work they do and the livelihoods they support with it, or they know and love men there, and are insulted by the insinuation of them being lumped in with anything to do with something as abhorrent as sexual assault. Fort McMurray, a city of young families looking to the future, has little patience for outsiders with accusations of old Wild West stereotypes.
But work camps are a uniquely capsuled-off society, a liminal space, and analogue for so many other male-dominated spaces. Gendered violence does happen when men outnumber women by as much as 50 to 1, as they can in the camps or work sites. Of course it does. Of course this happens when men are in isolation for long stretches of time, away from their families and relationships and communities, and completely resocialized in a camp and work environment like that of the oil sands. It does not matter how many decent people are there. I knew plenty of those.
This is all particularly and profoundly true for Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people in Canada, who are far more likely to be the victims of sexual violence, especially around places like remote work camps.
The oil sands operate on stolen lands. Their pollution, work camps and ever-growing settler populations continue to have serious social, economic, cultural, environmental and health consequences for the Indigenous communities in the region. Some communities have taken industrial leadership head on. Remarkable economic growth stands side by side with other issues of community concern. It is complicated. In any case, in 2005, despite all my education, I knew very little about this. Indigenous rights and the legacy of colonial violence were not in the news, not in any textbooks, not given a voice or the time of day. Thankfully, this is beginning to change. But that doesn’t change my past self’s relative ignorance of these things. I can only tell you about my oil sands, and my world, which was the very small white world of a 23-year-old far from home.
Autobiographical comics are a natural exercise for a cartoonist with something on their mind, and my time in the oil sands has constantly been on my mind in the years since I left Alberta. This was a book I was always going to make. When I followed the pattern of labour migration westward from Cape Breton, what I found waiting for me was a series of questions I could never quite answer. I’m still trying to answer them.
It changes people
A moment from Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
Artwork adapted from the book Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly