The Chronicle Herald hails Kate Beaton's "Ducks" story

“Mabou cartoonist draws on memories of Fort McMurray” / Chronicle Herald / Erin Pottie / April 15, 2014
Kate Beaton’s latest work draws from experiences in the Alberta oilpatch

Memories of melancholy from her days spent in Fort McMurray are never far from Kate Beaton’s mind.

Using a pen tablet as her mighty sword, the accomplished Mabou cartoonist says she recently dipped back into those recollections as part of a five-part series known as Ducks.

“It’s quite something to see so many of your own people sort of uprooted and put in a place like that,” said Beaton, 30, who now lives in Toronto.

“Leaving has been a part of the Cape Breton identity, at least for a long time, so you kind of grow up knowing that you will probably leave and that comes with its own weight.

“The choice isn’t there for everybody to stay, but then what do you do?”

In 2006, Beaton headed west to Alberta’s isolated oilfields after a lofty university experience left her in heavy debt.

For two years, she worked in the tool cribs, loaning out equipment to tradespeople working on-site.

And despite being surrounded by people from Eastern Canada, she, like many others, longed for home.

“I don’t want to paint it as the worst place imaginable,” said Beaton. “It’s hard, but people live their lives.

“The first time that I was there I didn’t come home for 13 months. I just felt like I’d been wiped off the face of the earth for a while.”

The Fort McMurray comic series, posted to Beaton’s Tumblr account, opens with strange news that more than 300 ducks were killed after landing into a pond of toxic waste.

Other autobiographical sketches portray a sense of humour, isolation, homesickness and despair.

In one sketch, a prostitute who is high on drugs refuses help after finding her way into one of the camps.

“Finding humour in everyday things is how people get on up there,” said Beaton. “You have to, it’s not a nice place. If you can’t find something to laugh about, then you’ll be miserable.”

Beaton says she was compelled to write about her time in Fort McMurray, as stories about life in the oilpatch are scarce.

However, she feels a certain hesitation, as not everyone’s experiences are the same as hers.

“I think about Fort McMurray all the time because I’m really affected by my time there,” she said. “You saw a lot of things that made you take pause.”

Also intriguing is the reaction Beaton gets when asked about life in the oilsands.

“People were always very concerned about what was happening environmentally, which is fine,” said Beaton. “But they didn’t seem to know or care about the human cost.”

Part of that cost, Beaton says, is struggling with one’s own emotions.

“It’s not black and white. People vilify the oilsands for a good reason a lot of the time, but for anybody who’s there it’s not that simple.”

Beaton is now considering collaborating with a friend on a book about their shared experiences in the West.

She says, so far, the response from the readers of her comic blog are positive.

“I’m glad that I saw what is so common now among my people, and to be a part of that makes me feel like I’m part of the Cape Breton community, even though I’m a cartoonist in Toronto now, because I have that shared experience,” said Beaton.

Beaton, who won a Doug Wright Award in 2012 and was previously recognized as an emerging artist, is also busy writing a sequel to her book Hark! A Vagrant. The Doug Wright Awards spotlight the best in Canadian cartooning.

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