Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/ IMAGE.PM.13.1.5 | PDF

Found­ing Fathers Melanie Den­nis Unrau

Founding Fathers (in a Tailings Pond)

Melanie Den­nis Unrau
This spec­u­la­tive essay uses an imag­i­nary (and non-exis­tent) com­ic to call a tar-sands indus­try founder who may have thought of him­self as a goose back to Fort McMur­ray to see how water­fowl fare in tail­ings ponds. It treats S.C. Ells (1878-1971), an ear­ly-20th-cen­tu­ry Cana­di­an Depart­ment of Mines engi­neer who was also an ama­teur writer and illus­tra­tor, as a colo­nial founder not only of the tar-sands indus­try but also of lit­er­ary and visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the indus­try and the Athabas­ca region. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from artist and for­mer tar-sands work­er Kate Beaton’s “Found­ing Fathers” comics, it com­pares the link­ages between humans and water­fowl in Ells’s works and in Beaton’s 2014 web­com­ic “Ducks.” By doing so, it takes Ells on a time-trav­el­ling adven­ture and home­com­ing tour in the petro­mod­ern dystopia that has become his legacy.
Cet essai spécu­latif utilise une bande dess­inée imag­i­naire (et non exis­tente) pour rap­peller à Fort McMur­ray un fon­da­teur de l’industrie des sables bitu­mineux, qui se con­sid­érait peut-être comme une oie, pour voir com­ment la sauvagine s’en sort dans les bassins de résidus. Elle traite S.C. Ells (1878-1971), un ingénieur du min­istère cana­di­en des Mines du début du XXe siè­cle, qui était aus­si un écrivain ama­teur et un illus­tra­teur, d’un fon­da­teur colo­nial non seule­ment de l’industrie des sables bitu­mineux, mais aus­si des représen­ta­tions lit­téraires et visuelles de l’industrie et de la région de l’Athabasca. S’inspirant des ban­des dess­inées, «Found­ing Fathers», de l’artiste et anci­enne tra­vailleuse des sables bitu­mineux, Kate Beat­on, elle com­pare les rap­ports entre les humains et la sauvagine créés dans les œuvres d’Ells et dans la bande dess­inée en ligne « Ducks » de Beat­on (2014). Ce faisant, elle accom­pa­gne Ells dans une aven­ture dans le temps et une tournée dans la dystopie pétro-mod­erne qui est dev­enue son héritage.


Found­ing Fathers (in a Tail­ings Pond)” is a com­ic that I wish existed—a ver­sion of com­ic artist and for­mer tar-sands work­er Kate Beaton’s Found­ing Fathers web­com­ic series that would poke fun at one of the ‘found­ing fathers’ of the Cana­di­an tar-sands indus­try. In the absence of such a com­ic, this spec­u­la­tive essay cre­ates an anachro­nis­tic encounter inspired by Beaton’s rep­re­sen­ta­tions of U.S. Found­ing Fathers in 21st-cen­tu­ry shop­ping malls and amuse­ment parks. It calls S.C. Ells (1878-1971)—a Cana­di­an Depart­ment of Mines engi­neer and an ama­teur writer and illus­tra­tor who liked to be referred to as “the father of the tar sands” (McCook; “‘Father’”)—back to vis­it Fort McMur­ray and the Athabas­ca region. Com­par­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of water­fowl in Ells’s works and in Beaton’s 2014 web­com­ic “Ducks” (and sug­gest­ing that Ells may have thought of him­self as a goose), it imag­ines tak­ing Ells on a time-trav­el­ling, home­com­ing tour to see how water­fowl fare in a tar-sands tail­ings pond. This essay treats Ells as a colo­nial founder not only of the tar-sands indus­try but also of lit­er­ary and visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the indus­try and the region—a proud and deeply flawed ‘father,’ vision­ary, and nature-lover who failed to con­ceive of the destruc­tion and harm that would become his legacy.

Looping Back on Founding Fathers

Kate Beaton’s comics series “Found­ing Fathers (in a Mall)” and “Found­ing Fathers (Stuck in an Amuse­ment Park)” imag­ine famous Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in ubiq­ui­tous 21st-cen­tu­ry set­tings. In the first pan­el of one two-pan­el com­ic drawn in Beaton’s rough, car­toon­ish style and titled “Infin­i­ty,” a man in 18th-cen­tu­ry garb points to a roller coast­er and express­es to anoth­er his hope that the “chain of car­riages” will bring them “home”—presumably back to their own time and place (see Fig­ure 1). In the sec­ond pan­el, the sec­ond found­ing father, who has seen the tra­jec­to­ry of the roller coast­er, dash­es the other’s hopes, say­ing, in one speech bal­loon, “It is mere­ly a cir­cle of vio­lence,” and, in a sec­ond bal­loon, “and then you retch.”

Figure 1: “Infinity” from the series Founding Fathers (Stuck in an Amusement Park) by Kate Beaton.

Infin­i­ty” can be read as meta-com­men­tary on what Daniel Mar­rone calls Beaton’s anachro­nis­tic prac­tice of “a his­to­ry that is con­stant­ly fold­ing over on itself” (176): the Found­ing Fathers comics’ seem­ing­ly infi­nite loops of jokes and jux­ta­po­si­tions rep­re­sent the Fathers as var­i­ous­ly appalled and enthralled by the dystopi­an, late-cap­i­tal­ist ends to which their prin­ci­ples and visions have been applied. At anoth­er lev­el, the min­utes-long roller coast­er loop serves as an alle­go­ry for the vio­lent project of home­mak­ing on some­one else’s land—a “slow dis­tur­bance” that links its founders to ongo­ing dis­pos­ses­sion, geno­cide, and harm through what archi­tec­ture and media schol­ar Rafi­co Ruiz describes as infra­struc­tur­al “chains of set­tler colo­nial mate­ri­al­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty” (7). The point in the roller coast­er loop where “you retch” is a tem­po­ral mark­er where past promis­es, as seen from the back loop, are emp­tied out and revealed as hav­ing been part of the “cir­cle of vio­lence” all along.

Beaton’s roller-coast­er scene antic­i­pates urban geo­g­ra­ph­er Stephanie Wakefield’s appli­ca­tion of resilience ecol­o­gy the­o­ry to the geo­log­i­cal era now known as the Anthro­pocene in Anthro­pocene Back Loop. Like oth­er nat­ur­al-cul­tur­al sys­tems, the Anthro­pocene is sub­ject to pat­terns of growth, sta­bil­i­ty, frag­men­ta­tion, dis­so­lu­tion, and adap­ta­tion that can be imag­ined as a fig­ure eight, with oppor­tu­ni­ties for exper­i­men­ta­tion, resis­tance, and change aris­ing espe­cial­ly in the back loop, where the log­ics and struc­tures of the entire sys­tem are in ques­tion. Wake­field con­sid­ers the 20th-cen­tu­ry era of megapro­jects such as dams and tar-sands mines as exem­pli­fy­ing the front-loop sense of “being a part of an order that was going some­where bet­ter” (26)—like a roller coast­er chug­ging upward on its tracks. The back loop, in con­trast, is “our present, the moment of the nam­ing of the Anthro­pocene (as a fail­ure), in which the past (front loop) has not dis­ap­peared, like points trail­ing behind on a line, but is erupt­ing in unpre­dictable ways in the present” (32). What is revealed in the erup­tions of cli­mate change, pre­car­i­ty, frag­men­ta­tion, and con­fu­sion is that the mod­ernist-colo­nial­ist-cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem has always been a “cir­cle of violence.”

Now a cel­e­brat­ed pro­fes­sion­al artist known for her Hark! A Vagrant comics, Beat­on fin­ished her under­grad­u­ate degree in his­to­ry at Mount Alli­son Uni­ver­si­ty and then, to pay off her stu­dent loans, joined the droves of work­ers from the Mar­itimes in Fort McMur­ray dur­ing the oil boom between 2006 and 2008. It was while she was work­ing in Fort McMur­ray and draw­ing at night that Beat­on first began pub­lish­ing her absurd his­tor­i­cal, fem­i­nist comics online (Shi­mo). Beat­on has pub­lished two scrolling web­comics about liv­ing and work­ing at a tar-sands mine—“Night Shift” and “Ducks”—but there are no Found­ing Fathers comics about the tar sands. Fol­low­ing Patri­cia Yaeger’s invi­ta­tion to treat ener­gy sources as modes of mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, how­ev­er, we might describe Beaton’s works as petro-media and cul­tur­al forms that can be traced to the tar sands in their place, time, and mode of pro­duc­tion (even those not explic­it­ly ‘about’ the tar sands). For this exper­i­men­tal essay-as-imag­ined-com­ic, I adopt Beaton’s roller coast­er as the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work and as anachro­nis­tic method for read­ing (rep­re­sen­ta­tions of) water­fowl in the tar sands.1 Like Beat­on, I approach “found­ing fathers” with skep­ti­cism and irony, root­ed in Indige­nous and decolo­nial cri­tique of what Métis schol­ar and poet Emma LaRocque calls the “colo­nial sub­terfuge behind the fan­tas­tic hero-ifi­ca­tion of the White man” (36), and also in fem­i­nist and wom­an­ist cri­tique of the dubi­ous notion that the vio­lent, dom­i­nant, and oppres­sive patri­ar­chal father fig­ure is nec­es­sary for the devel­op­ment of human indi­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies, or insti­tu­tions.2

Father Goose

Sidney Clarke Ells was a white min­ing expert and civ­il ser­vant, a stub­born, hands-on inno­va­tor who was sent in 1913 by the Cana­di­an Depart­ment of Mines to inves­ti­gate the tar-sands deposits in Treaty Eight ter­ri­to­ry, on the home­lands of Cree, Chipewyan Dene, and Métis peo­ples near the Hudson’s Bay Com­pa­ny fur-trad­ing post of Fort McMur­ray. Ells would con­tin­ue to work pri­mar­i­ly on the Athabas­ca tar sands until his retire­ment in 1945, sur­vey­ing and min­ing the under­ground deposits, paving exper­i­men­tal roads with asphalt made from bitu­mi­nous sand, and devel­op­ing ear­ly meth­ods for bitu­men sep­a­ra­tion. The 1931 pho­to­graph of Ells in Fig­ure 2 shows Ells seem­ing­ly in the mid­dle of work, hold­ing a pail, with the Abasand Oil Plant behind him and the steep shore of the Horse Riv­er beside him. After for­mer Abasand own­er Max Ball first called Ells “the father of the Alber­ta bitu­mi­nous sand research and devel­op­ment” in 1950 (quot­ed in Ells, Rec­ol­lec­tions 101), Ells encour­aged his own rep­u­ta­tion as “the father of the tar sands” (see, for exam­ple, McCook; “‘Father’”). The Sid­ney Clarke Ells fonds at Library and Archives Cana­da reveal that Ells spent much of his career and his retire­ment defend­ing and reassert­ing this reputation—in media inter­views, let­ters, and mul­ti­ple ver­sions of and adden­dums to his memoir—against those of bet­ter-known and bet­ter-liked founders like Karl A. Clark and Robert Fitzsim­mons. I pic­ture Ells wait­ing beyond the grave, eager to be sum­moned up by future gen­er­a­tions as a hero and inno­va­tor, but our sum­mons to 2022—to “code red for human­i­ty” (“Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al”), to an Athabas­ca region treat­ed as a sac­ri­fice zone for extrac­tion, and to the back loop of the tar-sands roller coaster—is a sum­mons to a moment of reck­on­ing and of ask­ing where the found­ing fathers led us astray.

Figure 2: Sydney Ells at tar sand plant, Waterways, Alberta, 1931. Photo by H.S. Spence.

While Ells sel­dom receives the cred­it he deserves for found­ing the tar-sands indus­try, it is even more rare for Ells to be acknowl­edged as a pre­cur­sor and per­haps founder of colo­nial lit­er­ary and visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the tar sands.3 Ells was an author of old-fash­ioned ama­teur poet­ry, short sto­ries, his­to­ries, and pen­cil-drawn illus­tra­tions about life in the Athabas­ca region, first cre­at­ed as Christ­mas cards for friends and fam­i­ly or as con­tri­bu­tions to the Cana­di­an Geo­graph­i­cal Jour­nal or the Cana­di­an Min­ing Jour­nal, and lat­er col­lect­ed in the book North­land Trails, pub­lished in 1938 and in an expand­ed edi­tion in 1956. Ells’s ama­teur writ­ing was part of the pop­u­lar-poet­ry tra­di­tion that flour­ished in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry (Chasar). Judg­ing from the 26 reviews of North­land Trails pub­lished pri­mar­i­ly in news­pa­pers and geo­log­i­cal and min­ing peri­od­i­cals includ­ed in the Sid­ney Clarke Ells fonds, Ells’s book was well received by a wide range of read­ers. Ells is sel­dom remem­bered today as an artist or writer in Fort McMur­ray,4 not to men­tion in Cana­da, but he made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the cul­tur­al and aes­thet­ic project of lay­ing claim to land that was already occu­pied as the sen­tient home­land of Indige­nous peoples—making it seem avail­able for extrac­tion as a beau­ti­ful but emp­ty hin­ter­land.5

Read­ing Ells’s mem­oir Rec­ol­lec­tions of the Devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca Oil Sands and his tech­ni­cal reports with a view to how they con­tributed to a colo­nial visu­al­iza­tion of the tar sands that empha­sizes “indus­tri­ous­ness” (39),6 soci­ol­o­gists Debra David­son and Mike Gis­mon­di con­clude that Ells “lit­er­al­ly took the mea­sure of the place, con­cen­trat­ing his geologist’s eye on ver­ti­cal­i­ty and not on sur­faces” (47). Lit­er­ary schol­ar Jon Gor­don like­wise reads only Ells’s Rec­ol­lec­tions, focus­ing on two poems by Ells used as the epi­graph and epi­logue. Gor­don agrees with David­son and Gis­mon­di but adds that a repressed ten­sion between “moder­ni­ty and wilder­ness” pro­pelled Ells’s work and poet­ics (56), because Ells also loved the land he sought to con­quer (57). Gordon’s obser­va­tions bear out in the rest of Ells’s cre­ative oeu­vre, where the ten­sion between moder­ni­ty and wilder­ness is a preva­lent and unre­solved “ener­gy uncon­scious” (Yaeger 306). North­land Trails vac­il­lates between exul­ta­tion in the seem­ing­ly untouched nature of “the north­land” (as seen through the colo­nial myth of ter­ra nul­lius) and cel­e­bra­tion of the rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism of white engi­neers, prospec­tors, and explor­ers deter­mined to indus­tri­al­ize and mod­ern­ize the North. The col­lec­tion avoids the clash between Ells’s con­tra­dic­to­ry roles as lover and col­o­niz­er of the Athabas­ca region. It does this, in part, through the use of migra­to­ry geese—who trav­el between north and south like Ells did between Fort McMur­ray and Ottawa—as a sub­tle metaphor for Ells. The goose metaphor indi­g­e­nizes Ells while also offer­ing a dis­tanced visu­al­iza­tion of the tar sands that sep­a­rates him from respon­si­bil­i­ty for the harms done by the indus­try he was so proud to have founded.

Figure 3: “My Symphony” and illustration by S.C. Ells. Northland Trails, 1956 edition.

Per­haps the most obvi­ous exam­ple of Ells’s affin­i­ty with geese is “My Sym­pho­ny,” an illus­trat­ed bal­lad in rhyming pen­tame­ter and trime­ter first pub­lished in the Cana­di­an Geo­graph­i­cal Jour­nal in 1939 and includ­ed in the 1956 edi­tion of North­land Trails (see Fig­ure 3). In it, the Athabas­ca region awak­ens with the arrival of the geese in spring, an annu­al event that often coin­cid­ed with Ells’s own arrival from Ottawa. The poem is pre­ced­ed by a full-page draw­ing of a north­ern sun­rise scene with Cana­da geese in flight in both fore­ground and back­ground, a land­scape with a sta­tion at its base for the view­er to stand and watch the geese fly over. Or, the view­er might raise their arms, imag­in­ing con­duct­ing the sym­pho­ny or tak­ing flight them­self. A sec­ond image above the poem shows two geese lift­ing off from a body of water. The lines of the poem also seem to take flight, espe­cial­ly in the repet­i­tive, emphat­ic, ital­i­cized lines that close each stan­za and align the poet’s ode or song with the honk­ing of the geese. This visu­al-lit­er­ary text posi­tions the speak­er, and Ells him­self, as both a nat­ur­al res­i­dent of the North who prefers the calls of geese over the sym­phonies of the city and a mod­ern­iz­ing hero who brings change to the region.

Despite the atten­tion to detail and real­ism in Ells’s draw­ings of geese, the words of the poem reveal an inat­ten­tion to the geese that sug­gest that “My Sym­pho­ny” is more about Ells than the water­fowl. The descrip­tive lan­guage of the poem is focused on telling rather than show­ing, high­light­ing the con­trast and vis­i­bil­i­ty of the geese but, aside from the unimag­i­na­tive descrip­tion of Cana­da geese as “gray,” not actu­al­ly describ­ing their appear­ances. Geese arriv­ing from the south are described using adjec­tives that high­light char­ac­ter­is­tics Ells admired and emu­lat­ed: clear cut, stark, unerr­ing, unafraid, tire­less, and stout-heart­ed. In con­trast, the ter­ri­to­ry that the geese awak­en in the sec­ond stan­za is rep­re­sent­ed as ter­ra nul­lius, as “track­less,” silent, and “name­less,” into which the speak­er seems to hear the geese call “Awake, Awake!” The geese, who arrive as “gray-winged, mar­shalled hosts,” call­ing out with “stri­dent clam­our of tri­umphant cry,” recall not only the World War I veteran’s own mil­i­tary-style dis­ci­pline and work eth­ic but also colo­nial occu­pa­tion, so that the sounds the speak­er hears in the third stan­za as “wild free har­mo­ny” also serve as the war cry of an occu­py­ing force (47). The third stan­za con­trasts the “mut­ed music” of oth­er north­ern ani­mals and beings against the stri­den­cy and noise of the geese, seem­ing­ly jus­ti­fy­ing Ells’s own aggres­sive behav­iour and colo­nial moti­va­tions (as expressed else­where in his cel­e­bra­tions of men who “push the fron­tier back” and “who won’t take ‘No’!” [North­land 43; 32]).

Geese are treat­ed as lit­er­ary devices in the poem, emp­tied of goose-being and imbued with human imagery and moti­va­tions. As a migrant whose indi­gene­ity and belong­ing in the Athabas­ca region are nev­er ques­tioned, and as a loud and brash being whose arrival and depar­ture sig­ni­fy sea­son­al change, the goose serves as a con­ve­nient metaphor for Ells to assert his belong­ing at the same time as his role as an agent of change. In this sense, Ells rep­re­sents him­self as one of the geese, fly­ing and honk­ing along with the nat­ur­al rhythms of the wilder­ness while also assert­ing the right to mod­ern­ize and change the region. The arrival of the geese also serves as pathet­ic fal­la­cy, sug­gest­ing that all the beau­ty and the noise are a cel­e­bra­tion of Ells and his arrival, so that the honk-like calls at the end of the first stan­za—“They come! they come! they come!”—amount to the land itself exclaim­ing you’re here! to cel­e­brate the arrival of the min­ing engi­neer. Call­ing the sounds of geese a sym­pho­ny is anthro­po­mor­phism and an act of com­po­si­tion akin to the human-cen­tred fram­ing of the visu­al images. Like Ells’s mem­oir titled Rec­ol­lec­tions of the Devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca Oil Sands, “My Sym­pho­ny” sit­u­ates indi­vid­ual geese with­in a big­ger pic­ture and a grander nar­ra­tive, while also high­light­ing one excep­tion­al human-goose as the com­pos­er or con­duc­tor of it all. It sug­gests that every­thing that hap­pens as part of the sym­pho­ny (or the long tra­jec­to­ry of the indus­try) was known and planned from the begin­ning by the con­duc­tor (or the “father of the tar sands”).

My Sym­pho­ny” con­sti­tutes a found­ing visu­al­iza­tion and “lit­er­ary land claim” for the tar-sands indus­try (Fee). The fram­ing of the visu­al imagery and the poem claim the sym­pho­ny as being by, for, and about Ells more than the geese. Ells uses this sense of belong­ing and enti­tle­ment to make the sym­pho­ny, the geese, and the land mine, ignor­ing the pri­or claims of Indige­nous peo­ples and instead claim­ing the land for him­self and the Cana­di­an state as an extrac­tive zone—that is, as a mine. Using a strat­e­gy of ver­ti­cal­i­ty that dif­fers from but is relat­ed to the one that David­son and Gis­mon­di observe in his geo­log­i­cal reports, Ells adopts the per­spec­tive of a goose’s-eye view, or what Don­na Har­away has famous­ly called a “god-trick of see­ing every­thing from nowhere,” a pre­tend­ed objec­tiv­i­ty that denies “the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty and embod­i­ment of all vision” (189). This strat­e­gy is a form of sub­terfuge that allows Ells to por­tray him­self as a hero and found­ing father while avoid­ing engag­ing in good land rela­tions with the Indige­nous peo­ples, non-Indige­nous set­tlers, trap­pers, and traders, and oth­er sen­tient beings (includ­ing water­fowl) who already called the Athabas­ca region home when he arrived in 1913.7 It also allows Ells to avoid tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the harms that would be done by the tar-sands indus­try and the fur­ther col­o­niza­tion of the region.

Fig. 4: S.C. Ells’s drawing of a future Abasand plant in “Research Touches the North.”

Anoth­er exam­ple of Ells’s irre­spon­si­ble use of a goose’s-eye view is his illus­tra­tion for a World War II-era arti­cle he authored for the Cana­di­an Geo­graph­i­cal Jour­nal, titled “Research Touch­es the North: Com­mer­cial Poten­tial­i­ties of Alberta’s Bitu­mi­nous Sands—to Meet Allied Oil Needs for Times of Peace and War” (see Fig­ure 4). The view­er of this image might be a goose fly­ing low over a futur­is­tic imag­i­na­tion of a large-scale tar-sands plant locat­ed on the same site along the Horse Riv­er that is seen in the back­ground of Fig­ure 2. Nowhere in Ells’s arti­cle is this image sig­nalled as an imag­i­nary future for the tar sands; the lack of a cap­tion for only this illus­tra­tion makes it seem either that such a plant already exist­ed in 1942 or that its future exis­tence was inevitable—yet this is a dream image, an ide­al­ized future and an emp­ty infra­struc­tur­al promise. It adopts what lit­er­ary schol­ar Jen­nifer Wen­zel calls a resource aes­thet­ic of improve­ment, one that would ulti­mate­ly be replaced with a resource aes­thet­ic that treats every­thing that had been improved and pre­served as “over­bur­den after all” (n.p.) Although Ells’s vision and visu­al­iza­tions for a tar-sands indus­try to come did influ­ence and shape its even­tu­al devel­op­ment, this image—with its clean lines, effi­cient deliv­ery sys­tems, and inte­gra­tion into the sur­round­ing ecosys­tem, as well as its now-pre­pos­ter­ous assump­tion that crude oil could be extract­ed from bitu­mi­nous sand in a process so clean that its only by-prod­uct would be “waste sand” (and maybe a few wisps of smoke)—reveals Ells’s incom­pre­hen­sion of the scale, waste, and dis­re­gard for nature of a prof­it-dri­ven tar-sands indus­try to come.

When called up along­side the all-too-famil­iar imagery of tail­ings ponds and open-pit tar-sands mines in the Athabas­ca region today, this image demon­strates Ruiz’s argu­ment that set­tler-colo­nial resource fron­tiers are made through process­es of infra­struc­tur­al medi­a­tion as “slow dis­tur­bance.” Although each link in the chain of such a dis­tur­bance may make only incre­men­tal changes, the result, under late racial-indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism, is the con­di­tion of what cul­tur­al schol­ar Michael Truscel­lo calls “infra­struc­tur­al bru­tal­ism,” through which “the ‘crit­i­cal’ infra­struc­ture that sus­tains life in indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties also gen­er­ates necrop­o­lit­i­cal assem­blages, death-deal­ing dis­pos­ses­sion, and struc­tur­al oppres­sions” (6-7). Despite Ells’s claims to have start­ed or fore­seen the tra­jec­to­ry of the “devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca oil sands,” it is the vora­cious and indis­crim­i­nate appetite of cap­i­tal, and not the visions of a hand­ful of inno­v­a­tive “fathers” that dri­ves the tra­jec­to­ry of the oil sands indus­try. The dis­par­i­ty between Ells’s vision of a future tar-sands indus­try and the actu­al con­di­tions in the region today reveals some of the prob­lems inher­ent in the hero-ifi­ca­tion of found­ing fathers. A back-loop per­spec­tive on the tar sands sug­gests not only that the vision­ar­ies and founders of the indus­try should be held respon­si­ble for their actions instead of being cel­e­brat­ed but also that vil­i­fy­ing them as if they fore­saw the destruc­tion that would be wrought in their names does lit­tle to resist and break ongo­ing prac­tices of col­o­niza­tion, extrac­tion, and harm.


In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry and the Anthro­pocene front loop, Ells cre­at­ed images of water­fowl in the tar sands that empha­sized flight and his own pre­sumed-to-be-glo­ri­ous lega­cy. Since 1600 ducks became mired and drowned in a tail­ings pond at Syncrude’s Auro­ra mine near Fort McMur­ray on April 28, 2008, water­fowl have played a sig­nif­i­cant role in 21st-cen­tu­ry pub­lic opin­ion and debate over the tar sands. In his book The Patch, jour­nal­ist Chris Turn­er argues that the Syn­crude ducks rep­re­sent a col­li­sion between High-Mod­ern indus­tri­al utopi­anism and Anthro­pocene dystopia. He cri­tiques the metonymy of a media response that might be described as a back-loop inver­sion of the hyper­bol­ic imagery and sym­bol­ism of Ells’s sym­pho­ny: “[t]he birds and the tail­ings pond became a proxy for a wider pol­lut­ed world in con­flict, and in short order the whole indus­try became the embod­i­ment of cli­mate change itself, the poster child for the whole sin­ful age of fos­sil fuels, the face of an invis­i­ble glob­al cat­a­stro­phe” (xxi­ii). Today, no one wants to be the father of the tar sands. With the sym­pho­ny of the front loop crash-land­ing in the muck and mire of the back loop, the oil lob­by wants respon­si­bil­i­ty to run like water off a duck’s back (as it does all too often in rela­tion to con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and acci­dents affect­ing near­by Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties), but, in the case of the ducks, it sticks like tail­ings-pond sludge.8 Observ­ing a relat­ed phe­nom­e­non in the Unit­ed States fol­low­ing the BP oil spill, lit­er­ary schol­ar Ruth Sal­vag­gio con­sid­ers an icon­ic oiled Pel­i­can as a “Pel­i­can Angel,” a ver­sion of Wal­ter Benjamin’s Angel of His­to­ry, watch­ing the wreck­age of petro­mod­ern progress pil­ing up before its eyes (384). Through the “tra­di­tion­al link­age of birds and human imag­i­na­tion” (Sal­vag­gio 393), read­ing water­fowl in the tar sands expos­es an unfold­ing cat­a­stro­phe that is also a cri­sis of imag­i­na­tion; through the impulse to save an oiled bird, the image sticks. It com­pels us to respond.

Kate Beaton’s “Ducks” responds to the Syn­crude ducks inci­dent in the form of an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, scrolling, sketch-style web­com­ic about liv­ing and work­ing on a tar-sands min­ing site. Made in 2014, the com­ic is based on the two years Beat­on spent in Fort McMur­ray and is set in spring 2008.9 Beaton’s long-await­ed book-length graph­ic mem­oir on the same theme, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, is forth­com­ing with Drawn & Quar­ter­ly in 2022. The unnamed pro­tag­o­nist of “Ducks” is a young, white woman from Cape Bre­ton who works in an office in the work camp where she also lives. She is veg­gie deprived, home­sick, lone­ly, wor­ried about the air qual­i­ty, rashy from the water, and show­ing signs of hav­ing been harassed by the men in the camp.10 Yet, she also feels sol­i­dar­i­ty and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty with the oth­er work­ers, who are all liv­ing and work­ing in the fraught place referred to as “the oil sands” (Part Five)—a place where bitu­men, work­ers, res­i­dents, and stolen land are rolled into one resource to be exploit­ed. Indige­nous peo­ple are either absent from or unmarked in the com­ic, although their prox­im­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty are sig­nalled through ref­er­ences to work­ers catch­ing and releas­ing deformed and ined­i­ble fish, through the ducks, and per­haps through a scene where the pro­tag­o­nist tries to help a sex work­er some­one snuck into the work camp who is hav­ing a men­tal health cri­sis in the bath­room.11 The pro­tag­o­nist visu­al­izes and inhab­its the Athabas­ca region as an extrac­tive zone; she seems only vague­ly to under­stand it as an Indige­nous home­land. In con­trast to Ells’s pol­ished images and his affin­i­ty for aer­i­al per­spec­tives, Beaton’s com­ic is messy and ground­ed. The images are scaled to the per­spec­tive of a work­er in a camp, based on Beaton’s expe­ri­ence and on what a work­er can see from inside a mine site. Work camp life lends itself nei­ther to grand nar­ra­tives nor to aes­theti­cized or politi­cized land­scapes; instead, the framed and unframed pan­els that scroll one at a time form a litany of images of work­ers that push back at their rep­re­sen­ta­tion as per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence and eco­cide by show­ing how they are also exploit­ed and harmed.

Beaton’s com­ic begins with the pro­tag­o­nist hear­ing the news about the Syn­crude ducks from a cowork­er, then look­ing up a news sto­ry on her com­put­er. On the way to a safe­ty meet­ing, she sees ducks fly­ing over­head, then puts on her hard­hat to block them from view, choos­ing not to face these bod­ies fresh­ly weight­ed with sig­nif­i­cance as sym­bols of human vio­lence, eco­cide, and bro­ken rela­tion­ships with the land (see Fig­ure 5).

Figure 5: Three panels from Part One of “Ducks” by Kate Beaton.

As the death count climbs from 300 to 500 and even­tu­al­ly over 1000 ducks in the course of the five-part com­ic, Beat­on accu­mu­lates com­par­isons between ducks and oil work­ers (includ­ing sex work­ers) as expend­able and exploit­ed in the tar sands. At the safe­ty meet­ing, oth­er work­ers joke and gig­gle through the announce­ments both about the new air can­nons and scare­crows the com­pa­ny is installing to pro­tect water­fowl and about the trag­ic death of Ger­ald Snopes, a crane oper­a­tor who had a heart attack and threw him­self out of the crane to avoid falling on the con­trols and injur­ing oth­ers. One work­er, Chris, scolds the oth­ers, say­ing, “As far as I’m con­cerned the man’s a hero,” con­trast­ing Gerald’s self­less behav­iour with the stub­born indi­vid­u­al­ism of famous tar-sands heroes such as Clark and Ells (Part One). The work­ers, mean­while, sur­vive and inflict the indig­ni­ties, tox­i­c­i­ties, and dan­gers of work-camp life while installing can­nons and build­ing scare­crows, sac­ri­fi­cial fig­ures who are dressed in the same cloth­ing as the work­ers them­selves. For exam­ple, in Fig­ure 6, George dress­es up a scare­crow and sug­gests, inap­pro­pri­ate­ly, that the pro­tag­o­nist might be attract­ed to it; the scare­crow in the sec­ond pan­el stoops for­ward like the pro­tag­o­nist and stands in for her.

Figure 6: Two panels from Part Four of “Ducks” by Kate Beaton.

When Chris crit­i­cizes the half-heart­ed efforts of the com­pa­ny to pro­tect ducks, say­ing “some­body high up thinks ducks are pret­ty fuck­ing stu­pid” (Part One), he implic­it­ly cri­tiques sim­i­lar half-mea­sures to pro­tect work­ers, while also com­ment­ing on the dan­gers and pit­falls of being “high up”—referring both to the cor­po­rate hier­ar­chy and the too-dis­tant per­spec­tives of those out­side the work camp who have so much to say about it. When Green­peace activists block a Syn­crude tail­ings pipe, a work­er calls out a god trick when he asks, “Who puts their life on the line to unclog that pipe?” and con­tin­ues, “I tell you it sure as fuck isn’t the Pres­i­dent of Shell” (Part Three).

Ducks” ends with an epi­logue in which the pro­tag­o­nist is hav­ing drinks with a friend, some­where far from Fort McMur­ray. When asked by her mar­ti­ni-drink­ing com­pan­ion if she feels “bad about work­ing in a place like that,” the pro­tag­o­nist stam­mers and paus­es for one word­less frame before respond­ing, “I feel a lot of things.” Her pause cre­ates a reflex­ive moment to con­sid­er all there is to feel bad about in the tar sands, and how far from sim­ple it is to assign guilt or blame to the peo­ple who work there. The final, bor­der­less pan­el depicts a sludge-cov­ered duck drawn from the news cov­er­age of the 2008 inci­dent (see Fig­ure 7), link­ing all of the inci­dents of human endan­ger­ment, vio­lence, abuse, and kind­ness in the pre­ced­ing frames with the duck, and sug­gest­ing an envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics that is in sol­i­dar­i­ty with work­ers and that refus­es god- and goose-tricks.

Figure 7: Final, frameless panel from “Ducks” by Kate Beaton.


In the front loop of the tar sands, Ells spun out visions of indus­tri­al­iza­tion as improve­ment on land that he per­ceived, wrong­ly, as pris­tine and prac­ti­cal­ly emp­ty. Oper­at­ing under the illu­sion that moder­ni­ty and wilder­ness could blend har­mo­nious­ly in the Athabas­ca region, he laid the ground­work for an extrac­tive indus­try that would treat the land, its inhab­i­tants, and work­ers alike as over­bur­den. Despite Ells’s use of geese and a goose’s-eye view to legit­imize his pres­ence and claims on the land, water­fowl in the tar sands have always exceed­ed and resist­ed the lim­its of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and they have tak­en on new mean­ing in the back loop. As a dis­il­lu­sioned mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al work­er in the Cana­di­an petro-state, Beat­on uses images of ducks to call out the found­ing fathers and high­er-ups of the tar-sands indus­try for set­ting us and keep­ing us on a roller coast­er of vio­lence and abjec­tion. This jour­nal-arti­cle-as-imag­i­nary-com­ic picks up where Beat­on left off, giv­ing Ells the Found­ing Fathers treat­ment. To catch up with Ells at the site of a 21st-cen­tu­ry tail­ings pond is to reframe “My Sym­pho­ny” as the reced­ing view of the Syn­crude duck as tar-sands Angel of His­to­ry, rewrit­ing Ells’s lega­cy as a bru­tal accu­mu­la­tion of wreck­age, dam­age, and harm. With indus­try and polit­i­cal rhetoric still amount­ing to puffery and mansplain­ing in the face of the urgent projects of decar­boniza­tion and decol­o­niza­tion, “Found­ing Fathers in a Tail­ings Pond” sug­gests it is time, to bor­row anoth­er phrase from Beat­on, to Step Aside, Pops. In the face of oiled birds, unem­ployed work­ers, threat­ened Indige­nous peo­ples and ter­ri­to­ries, bru­tal infra­struc­ture, and a cli­mate emer­gency, please take this arti­cle as a call for a just ener­gy tran­si­tion such as the Green New Deal, one that leaves no one behind and that fol­lows the lead of Indige­nous land and water pro­tec­tors, work­ers call­ing for green jobs, and young cli­mate activists.


The author wish­es to thank Siob­han Angus, Kevin Cole­man, and the two anony­mous peer review­ers for their insight­ful feed­back and advice; and to grate­ful­ly acknowl­edge the sup­port of the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­i­to­ba Insti­tute for the Humanities.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: “Infin­i­ty” from the series Found­ing Fathers (Stuck in an Amuse­ment Park) by Kate Beat­on. Hark! A Vagrant, 2006-2018, www​.harkav​a​grant​.com/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​?​i​d​=​375.

Fig­ure 2: Syd­ney Ells at tar sand plant, Water­ways, Alber­ta, 1931. Pho­to by H.S. Spence­Cana­da. Dept. of Mines and Tech­ni­cal Sur­veys, Library and Archives Cana­da, PA-014454. Pub­lic Domain.

Fig­ure 3: “My Sym­pho­ny” by S.C. Ells. North­land Trails. 1938. New and Enlarged Edi­tion. Burns & MacEach­ern, 1956. Pub­lic Domain.

Fig­ure 4: Illus­tra­tion for “Research Touch­es the North” by S.C. Ells. Cana­di­an Geo­graph­i­cal Jour­nal, vol. 24, no. 6, 1942, p. 256.

Fig­ure 5: Three pan­els from Part One of “Ducks” by Kate Beat­on. Hark! A Vagrant, 7 Apr. 2014, http://​www​.harkav​a​grant​.com/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​d​u​c​k​s​1​.​png.

Fig­ure 6: Two pan­els from Part Four of “Ducks” by Kate Beat­on. Hark! A Vagrant, 7 Apr. 2014, http://​www​.harkav​a​grant​.com/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​d​u​c​k​s​4​.​png.

Fig­ure 7: Final, frame­less pan­el from “Ducks” by Kate Beat­on. Hark! A Vagrant, 7 Apr. 2014, http://​www​.harkav​a​grant​.com/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​d​u​c​k​s​5​.​png.


  1. I use this phras­ing to sig­nal the affin­i­ty of this loop­ing method with poet Stephen Collis’s sim­i­lar method in the poem “Read­ing Wordsworth in the Tar Sands,” writ­ten (ref­er­enc­ing poet William Wordsworth) after Col­lis par­tic­i­pat­ed in a Tar Sand Heal­ing Walk around a tail­ings pond near Fort McMur­ray. Col­lis writes,

    Wordsworth—I feel you too!
    Though there is no mechanism
    To nuance this conversation
    Across the years—so I brought
    Your ruined cot­tages your
    Evening walks and Grasmere
    Hom­ing here to the Tar Sands[.] (62)

    For oth­er exam­ples of some­thing like the Found­ing Fathers treat­ment in poet­ry about the tar sands, see David Martin’s Tar Swan and Lind­say Bird’s “The Peter Pond Mall.”

  2. See, for instance, hooks; Lorde; Rud­dick.

  3. For exam­ple, poet­ry such as Lind­say Bird’s Boom Time, David Martin’s Tar Swan, Garth Martens’s Pro­logue for the Age of Con­se­quence, Les­ley Battler’s Endan­gered Hydro­car­bons, and Kel­ly Shepherd’s Shift and Insom­nia Bird, fic­tion such as Rudy Wiebe’s “The Angel of the Tar Sands,” Richard van Camp’s God­less but Loy­al to Heav­en, and War­ren Cariou’s “An Athabas­ca Sto­ry”; comics and graph­ic nov­els includ­ing Beaton’s “Night Shift,” Nicole Bur­ton, Hugh Goldring, and Patrick McCurdy’s The Beast, Joe Sacco’s “Bitu­men or Bust,” and Car­i­ou and Nicholas Burns’s “An Athabas­ca Sto­ry”; oth­er visu­al texts like Cariou’s pet­rog­ra­phy, Lucas Seaward’s bitu­men paint­ings, Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, Louis Helbig’s Beau­ti­ful Destruc­tion, and Eliz­a­beth LaPensée’s Thun­der­bird Strike; and polem­i­cal non­fic­tion includ­ing Ezra Levant’s Eth­i­cal Oil, Andrew Nikiforuk’s The Ener­gy of Slaves, Nao­mi Klein’s This Changes Every­thing, and Chris Turner’s The Patch.

  4. The Wood Buf­fa­lo Region­al Library (the pub­lic library in Fort McMur­ray) has a copy of Ells’s Rec­ol­lec­tions of the Devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca Oil Sands but no copy of North­land Trails. The library at Keyano Col­lege, the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege in Fort McMur­ray, does not hold either book. I vis­it­ed the Oil Sands Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in Fort McMur­ray in 2017 and saw no ref­er­ence to North­land Trails; I have since shared a copy of the book with employ­ees at the muse­um. I did, how­ev­er, find sev­er­al copies of North­land Trails in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­i­to­ba libraries, includ­ing a copy once owned by Mar­garet Lau­rence.

  5. On the fram­ing of north­ern Alber­ta as home­land vs. hin­ter­land, see West­man, Joly, and Gross.

  6. An unau­tho­rized ver­sion of Ells’s mem­oir, Rec­ol­lec­tions of the Devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca Oil Sands, was pub­lished by the Depart­ment of Mines in 1962; it was reis­sued by Syn­crude some­time in the 1970s. Ells’s many notes and revi­sions to the pub­lished ver­sion of the mem­oir are avail­able in the Sid­ney Clarke Ells fonds at Library and Archives Cana­da.

  7. On the com­plex land and treaty rela­tions of the Athabas­ca region pri­or to 1913, see McCor­ma­ck. My think­ing on extrac­tion and pol­lu­tion as land rela­tions is indebt­ed to Max Liboiron’s Pol­lu­tion is Colo­nial­ism.

  8. Tail­ings ponds are used to con­tain tox­ic waste from the extrac­tion and sep­a­ra­tion of bitu­men from the Athabas­ca tar sands. Although the indus­try is required to reme­di­ate land affect­ed by extrac­tion, the prob­lem of how to ful­ly reme­di­ate tail­ings ponds has gone unre­solved for the lifes­pan of the indus­try (that is, since the Great Cana­di­an Oil Sands plant opened in 1967); despite this (and with exist­ing tail­ings ponds big enough to be vis­i­ble from space), oil-sands projects pred­i­cat­ed on unproven reme­di­a­tion strate­gies con­tin­ue to be approved. For a lit­er­a­ture review of sci­en­tif­ic arti­cles about the reme­di­a­tion of fine tail­ings, see Sabo­ri­manesh.

  9. I read this com­ic with my stu­dents in Intro­duc­tion to Eng­lish: Read­ing Cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Win­nipeg in 2020 and 2021; I am indebt­ed to my stu­dents, who shared their insight­ful read­ings and influ­enced my own read­ing.

  10. Anoth­er com­ic by Beat­on, “Night Shift,” about work­ing the night shift in the tool crib in 2006, fea­tures the same pro­tag­o­nist and depicts overt sex­u­al harass­ment. (In “Night Shift,” the pro­tag­o­nist is com­pared to a fox who has been hang­ing around the mine site.)

  11. The final report of the Nation­al Inquiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women and Girls includes find­ings about resource extrac­tion projects, includ­ing the fol­low­ing: “Indus­tries that cre­ate ‘boom town’ and ‘man camp’ envi­ron­ments are impli­cat­ed in increased rates of drug- and alco­hol-relat­ed offences, sex­u­al offences, domes­tic vio­lence, and gang vio­lence, as well as sex indus­try activ­i­ties in the host com­mu­ni­ties. These occur­rences dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact Indige­nous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA peo­ple” (593).