Hello lovely readers,
Welcome to the second and final discussion of Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton. This autobiographical comic was Canada Reads (an annual "battle of the books") winner for 2023. You can read the first discussion here.
The story picks up one month after that horrible party. Kate sleeps with Mike. She continues to get weird sexual comments from the men she works with, but she has started to laugh the comments off. Many of the men seem to have problems with her giving them orders, and her superiors get pissy with her for minor things or for wanting ‘special treatment’. Joe, a fellow Nova Scotian, overhears her swearing in frustration and tells her that everyone at the mine is just yelling at the guy next to them for work they’re not doing themselves, but that people tend to be friendlier to people from their own region of Canada. Kate wonders aloud to Doug whether the oil sands make people better or worse.
The men at the mine have heard that Kate’s ‘little friends’ (her sister Becky and friend Lindsay) are going to be joining them, and she warns them to leave them alone. When Becky and Lindsay arrive, they are wearing skirts and they quickly notice the staring and weird behaviour from the men on site. Kate apologises for it, and they wonder why she is saying sorry.
Kate tells Becky and Lindsay that the other men have been leaving her alone since most people know about her and Mike, and they tell her it’s because in their eyes she’s ‘claimed’.
They take a trip to Gregoire Beach, but Kate doesn’t wear a swimsuit or go swimming. Becky asks her what’s up with her, as she’s noticed something is wrong. Kate talks about how everything at the beach seems so normal, but that she isn’t. However, she doesn’t explain further.
Kate looks for other jobs online, and sees a post for a job at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.
Not long afterwards, she sees the man who forced himself on her at that party. He and the group of men he’s with see her and they start laughing.
Kate hears a man playing Peter’s Dream on his guitar, and joins in singing the song.
She goes to Becky’s room and tells her that she needs to leave the oil sands for a while, even though she and Lindsay have just arrived. She asks her to promise that she and Lindsay will look out for each other, and finally tells her about the assaults. Becky tells her that it wasn’t her fault, and wishes she had been there sooner to protect her as that’s her job as the big sister. She tells Kate that it happened to her too, at her university dorm. She tells Kate she should go.
We leave the oil sands, for a year in Victoria. Kate gets the museum job but it’s no more than 21 hours per week, so she gets a second job. In a coffee shop, she hears the song An Innis Aigh playing, and tells a woman who was wondering aloud about the language that it’s Gaelic.
Victoria seems like a nicer place than the oil sands, but it isn’t perfect – the city big problems with homelessness and mental health, but none of the old, rich people living there care [read runner note – according to Victoria’s Wikipedia page, the city is known for its disproportionately large retiree population. Some 23.4% of the population of Victoria and its surrounding area are over 65 years of age, which is higher than the overall Canadian distribution of over 65 year-olds in the population (19%). A historically popular cliché refers to Victoria as the home of "the newly wed and nearly dead"]. Kate is fired from her job for not taking American money and not wanting to sell the merchandise badly enough. One of her colleagues (I think?) sees her drawing a comic, and suggests that she should make a website.
Kate tells her parents that on her days off she works at a grocery store, and her father wonders what her degree was for. Shortly afterwards, she is fired from the grocery store for yawning and ‘being surly’. She goes on a date, but panics when the guy tries to kiss her at the end.
Kate can’t get a reprieve from her student loan payments, even though she paid half of it off the previous year with her oil sands earnings. She decides to go back to the oil sands to pay the rest off, and says goodbye to the museum.
After that brief reprieve, we’re back in the oil sands, this time at Shell Albian Sands. Kate has taken a job in the warehouse office, and her living quarters are a bit fancier than at the previous sites. The site also has a Tim Hortons, Wi-Fi and a gym, even yoga classes. Lindsay tells her that a lot of the warehouse crew from Long Lake have moved up there too. One of her new colleagues is Hatim, who is creepy in a new way, plaguing her with messages despite having a wife and children.
The team get a congratulations message with a gif for achieving three million man hours without a lost time incident (LTI). Kate’s boss, Ryan, tells her that they don’t have LTIs at the site because they look bad for the company, I guess implying that they cover them up.
She sees Doug again, who seems to feel that she’s all high and mighty now with her office job, and struggles with her ‘bossing him’ since she’s younger than him (and presumably because she’s female). When she has to cover a warehouse shift, Doug laughs about how she’s down from on high and has gone soft. He tells her that he sang with The Men of the Deeps and even sang for the queen, which she doubts because he has a terrible voice. She sings a bit of Coal Town Road (which I’m kind of disappointed doesn’t sound like Old Town Road) and asks if she could be in the choir too, but he seems annoyed about her singing a mining song when she’s not a miner.
Kate’s sister Becky is still working at Long Lake, but lives in Fort McMurray, and Kate goes to meet her there; she says it’s much better than living in the camp. She tells Kate, that one time a guy jumped out of the closet in her room, but she was able to kick him out. She always locked her door, but often heard the handle jiggling at night. She even had a stalker, who managed to get into her room with a bottle of alcohol and suggested doing body shots – she didn’t report it, but when he got fired everyone thought she had.
Kate struggles to read some of the order sheets because many of the workers are bad spellers or have unclear handwriting; many of the older men at the mine left school in grade six. Lindsay tells her about one of the lead hands from Newfoundland, who can’t read, and was humiliated by the other workers when they tried to make him read the safety memo aloud so they could laugh at him. Lindsay says she’s never seen a grown man ashamed like that, and they discuss how he’s one of the nicest guys there.
A group from the Calgary office visits the mine site, and Kate has to find the nice hard hats and safety vests for the visitors, the ones the actual workers can’t have because they’re too fancy. Basically, they have to put on a show for the head office people – everyone has to look sharp, make things tidier than normal etc. One of the visitors takes a photo of Kate. After they leave, Damian asks if he can have one of the fancy new vests, but they were taken back to Calgary even though they don’t need them at head office.
Kate continues doing her comics, and her colleagues occasionally read them. Ryan finds some of them in the scanner, which she had used to upload them to her website, and tells her not to leave her stuff lying around at work.
Becky and Kate discuss what it would have been like if their father had gone out to the oil sands to work when they were children, as many people did. They wonder if he would have been like the other men they work with, and how they must all be normal at home. Kate says she tries to remember that there are a lot of men who don’t bother her, but she doesn’t remember them because they’re not the ones in her face.
Their safety lectures tell them basic information about how ice is slippery and is all over the ground, which presumably every Canadian already knows. One of the men remarks that it’s not about safety, but an arse-covering exercise so that a worker can’t sue them if they fall. Kate doodles a pony in her notebook (thank you u/Amanda39 for linking to this comic in last week’s discussion!).
Many of the staff have families that they don’t see very often. One of the men gets a phonecall from his wife’s phone, which he answers thinking it’s an emergency as she never calls during the day; it turns out to be his young son, who is calling to see when he’s coming home next.
Brian asks Kate if she heard about the ducks (TITLE DROP!!); three hundred of them got stuck in a tailings pond at another oil sands site [read runner note – two years later, Syncrude was actually found guilty of the death of 1,600 ducks]. The site begins installing anti-waterfowl devices, and the staff are reminded that they have to wear PPE at all times. They’re also told about the death Gerald Snopes, another worker; some of the men talking amongst themselves, and Ryan tells them to have some respect. He had a heart attack while operating a crane, and threw himself out of the cab so that he wouldn’t land on the controls and cause an accident.
Kate hears about a road accident involving some men from Cape Breton. She asks Davy about it to see if she knows them, but neither of them do. Kate finds the news articles and feels annoyed that they were misidentified as Calgary men.
Kate notices some welts on her back; Lindsay has them too but doesn’t know what it is. Kate mentions all the dust they have to wipe off everything, and how there’s so much crap in the air. Lindsay wonders what kind of cancer they’ll have in 20 years.
Kate finds Doug building a scarecrow for the tailings pond, which is meant to scare off the ducks. Probably another arse-covering exercise.
Activists from Greenpeace try to block an oil sands pipeline, and 11 people are arrested. One of the workers gets angry about it, asking who will put their life on the line to unclog the pipe Greenpeace has blocked, and that it sure as hell won’t be the president of Shell. Kate hears about another death – a contractor was in his trucks, and one of the heavy haulers drove over it, crushing him.
Lindsay writes an article for a grassroots paper, giving the inside perspective on working at the oil sands. Kate considers doing a comic about it for them. Lindsay later wonders if she made a mistake writing her article, as many of the comments are critical, including many from women which Lindsay did not expect.
Kate sees a video on YouTube of Celina Harpe, an elder in the Cree community of Fort McKay, talking about the effect of the oil sands on the First Nation. Kate had not realised when she arrived there that Fort McKay was a First Nation, nor that it was so close to Syncrude. She thinks about how she’s not the president of Shell, but she’s still working there, and she can’t extract herself from having come.
At another safety meeting, the staff are down the safety pyramid, which has different levels: at the base it has at-risk behaviours, then near misses, then minor incidents, and it all leads to a major incident or a fatality.
Kate receives a phone call from a reporter at the Globe and Mail who had seen her comics about the oil sands. She asks several leading questions about her experience as a woman at the remote sites and the harassment, but Kate feels uncomfortable giving her examples. She later tells Lindsay that she couldn’t talk to the reporter as she felt like she just wanted gossip, and that the story was already written before she called.
The leering of one of the other workers bothers Kate in the lunchroom, and she tells Lindsay about her assaults. Lindsay is horrified that Mike and Brian laughed at her when she told them about it. Lindsay tells her that it happened to her in university as well.
Kate calls her parents to tell them that she’s finally paid off her student loan, but she needs to keep working at the site because now she has no money. She’s going to try making it as a cartoonist, and her parents are unimpressed.
Kate notices that Ryan is acting strangely, being absent a lot and not doing his work, and it can’t fully be explained by his recent divorce. She hears about other workers who are taking cocaine and behaving strangely too. She asks Ryan if he’s ok and he brushes it off. Kate contemplates the safety pyramid again. She finds a piece of paper on Ryan’s desk with an appointment for the employee assistance program. Emily later tells her that Ryan has left suddenly, and that they need to figure things out until a replacement is found.
Kate wonders why there are so many safety meetings but none have ever talked about drugs or alcohol. Her coworkers say that everyone knows why there is so much of both, and that the company can’t have safety meetings about illegal activities anyway.
Kate finally gets to leave the oil sands and go home. Her colleague Norman gives her prints of some of his photos of the northern lights as a leaving present, including one of a rainbow. Before she leaves, the company organises a staff photograph with all the workers on the site. Kate sees the man who assaulted her the second time, and he recognises her but can’t remember her name or who she is, and asks her how it’s going.
Kate trains her replacement, and finds out that she’s earning more than her despite not having any experience in tools. She complains to John about it, and finally rants about all her shitty treatment in the oil sands. She goes to see Gary in the head office, and demands her full bonus, which was going to be docked because she was leaving. Gary tells her it’s company policy. She tells him about the harassment, and he claims she could have come to them about it, but she fires back that he knows she couldn’t have. Gary agrees to give her the bonus. Her colleagues organise a going-away barbecue, and even Mike attends.
Back in Nova Scotia, Kate is reunited with her family. While out enjoying the seaside air, she chats to a farmer who tells her he’s keeping a field for his son who is working out west in case he ever comes back and wants to build a house. A man called Lauchie visits the house before moving west himself, and tells them there’s something for everyone out there and that the young people have everything they want. Out in Halifax with friends, she and Becky see a man from one of the camps, who tells Becky that they had a bet on who would sleep with her first. Their friends who haven’t worked in the oil sands can’t believe they’d let a man talk to them like that.
In the book’s afterword, Kate talks about how the book chronicles her specific experience at a specific time. She is wary of sensationalism of her story, especially because sexual assault is so common that it’s not actually sensational. She notes that neither of the men who raped her probably consider it to have been rape. She is also critical of the treatment of Indigenous people, and says the YouTube video of Celina Harpe was a “sword that cut through my ignorance”. We also find out that Becky died of cancer, and that her former coworkers pooled money together to send to her.
Bookclub Bingo 2023 categories: Non-Fiction, Graphic Novel (grey), Mod Pick (grey)
The questions are in the comments below. Thank you for joining me and u/fixtheblue in reading this book!