It is a simple thing for the analytical mind to pry open the panel of oppression and see the whizzing cogs and grumbling gears of race, class and gender working mechanically to produce social relations. How neatly our familiar intellectual frameworks structure our understanding of human life! There is a reassuring consistency with which these lenses are employed, reducing the world’s complexities to a comfortable, mechanical pattern. Useful as it is, the cold-blooded methodology that sees the operation of capitalism, patriarchy and racism in all things fails to capture the essential ambiguity of our humanity.
It is this ambiguity of the human experience that Kate Beaton has captured in her recent series, Ducks. Threaded beautifully into starkly political themes of environmental destruction, corporate recklessness and workplace safety are more explicitly human experiences: isolation, camaraderie and the moral complexity of survival in one of the world’s deepest wounds. The essential humanity of surviving in such a profoundly dehumanizing environment defines this painfully nuanced piece.
Humanity is a dangerous concept, but an important one. It is too often emphasized by exclusion, used to demonize some people to serve the ends of others. Still, it is too important an idea to abandon. When the easy tautologies of political analysis fail us, it is the idea of our shared humanity that helps to explain what makes people hang together. For students of struggle, insights into this frustratingly elusive element of history are precious.
Like generations of easterners, Kate Beaton left her home town of Mabou, Nova Scotia to make a living in the scabrous sprawl of the tar sands. With few economic prospects at home and the promise of good pay, thousands have followed its siren call into the maw of destruction. ‘Ducks’ recounts Beaton’s experiences working on one of these sites, centred around the deaths of hundreds of ducks in a tailings pond near Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
There are no easy truths framed by these panels. An action by Greenepeace that clogs a tailing pipe endangers the lives of workers on site. A sex worker finds herself frightened and cornered in a work site bathroom. Kate Beaton discovers that working in the tar sands comes with a persistent skin rash. Her equipment is covered in dirt, even indoors. Workers die on the job.
The comic is shot through with death: the ducks, a man falling from a construction crane, others killed in an accident on the highway. In the last case, Beaton hears the dead men were Cape Bretoners and seeks out another islander to see if she knew them. Even halfway across the country, the threat to home is real.
Beaton exposes a vein of callous indifference in her subjects. Men grumble about traffic on the highway on the day of the accident. Workers joke through an announcement on the death of the crane operator. The corporate response to the duck deaths is a scarecrow and some noisemakers. But for every example of inhuman indifference there is a counterpoint of dignity or sorrow.
There is the memory of home, too, in gentle jibes about Newfie Roundsteaks – a teasing nickname for baloney. A man shares photos of his children at home. The lethal crash is framed in terms of the phone call to the families. When Beaton confesses she hates it there, her coworker response captures the essential truth of the situation, and the strip. No one wants to be in the tar sands, watching the planet die. But they don’t have much of a choice.
Kate Beaton is not always a political artist – she is not even always serious. But in framing a part of her own experience, she has given expression to an often difficult truth. We survive in the little acts of kindness, in shared experiences and frustrations that complicate our day. Though we may grow numb or compromised, at the end of it all we are bound together by our common humanity and our ability to find beauty – and absurdity – in even the most trying situations. That is a political lesson than captures an intangible truth outside the reach of cold analysis. How we apply the lesson is up to us.