An interview with cartoonist Kate Beaton on the environmental aspects of her graphic novel "Ducks"

I loved Kate Beaton's graphic novel / memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, published last year by Drawn and Quarterly. It's the true account of her stint working in Alberta, Canada oil sands when she was right out of college, in order to pay off her student loans.

There are many urgent issues raised in the book: the cruelty of North America's student loan programs; the psychological implications of working in a remote work camp; the sexual abuse endemic in a male-dominated work camp; and more.

A recent interview Beaton did with Inside Climate News focused on the environmental aspects of the book. The Athabasca oil sands where Beaton worked have been called the world's most destructive oil operation.

Beaton says that the title of the book came from a particular incident that occurred while she was there:

The book is called "Ducks." And there are a number of different things that you can take from that title. The main thing is that there was an incident in 2008, when I worked in the oil sands, when hundreds of ducks flew into a tailings pond at Syncrude, which is one of the sites that I worked at, and they died. And this became international news. And it was one of the first times where people really took a hard look at what was going on in the oil sands and decided that they didn't like it. 

When we were working there it seemed to be farcical because it was not as though those were the first animals that you saw that were endangered or dead because of the oil sands operations. And when you're reading the book, it's not the first animals that you encounter who have been impacted by these things.

She describes the horrible impact of the oil sands operation on the environment, and particularly on the indigenous people who lived nearby.

Around that same time, local Indigenous people were catching fish, and saying that they were finding cancerous lesions on them. And people were scrambling to find ways to discount that, to disprove it, to say, "No, I don't think so. I don't think this is what you think it is." And people didn't seem to care about the fish in the same way that they did about the ducks. Because it was easy to see that the ducks were all dead.

But it was harder to admit that an entire watershed was poisoned. And these Indigenous communities were also reporting themselves to have high rates of cancer, rare cancers, things like bile duct cancer in their communities, in Fort Chipewyan and Fort Mackay, much higher incidences of those in their communities than you find in other places. And they're saying amongst themselves and to other people, you know, it's clearly linked to the oil communities. And people are bending over backwards to say, "No, probably not." 

When it, when clearly the link is there. And how would you feel if people around you were contracting these rare cancers, and the government was trying to deny it, and the corporations were not claiming responsibility, and then they went out and made a gigantic fuss about these ducks? And everybody cared so much about the ducks? You know, you would, you'd be like, disgusted.

Sadly, Beaton's sister Becky, who worked with Kate at the work camp and is an important figure in the book, died of cancer.

My sister got cancer. Several years after working on site, and she worked there for longer than I did, several years longer than I did. And she had cervical cancer. And that's not related to breathing in things. But it spread so fast through her body that you will always wonder.

An important aspect of the story is that Beaton felt forced to take the job at the oil sands because her hometown in Nova Scotia offered no career opportunities; the coal, steel and pulp mill industries there were dead or dying. So it was nice to hear her say that because of the internet, there are more options in rural communities like hers, and younger people are moving back.