After a year of upheaval for the arts and culture sector, an Ontario-based advocacy group is collecting testimony from artists to support a national basic income plan.
Over the weekend, the Media Arts Network of Ontario hosted two full-day panels inviting 20 artists from across Canada to testify to a group of sector experts about the merits of a basic income.
The commission will gather information from these testimonies for a report that will inform advocacy work in advance of a possible federal election this year.
Independent filmmakers, media artists, writers, theatre workers and musicians testified to the panel. Participants called in from Newfoundland to Vancouver and from every province, both from urban centres and rural areas.
While the artists spoke from a range of lived experiences, many of their testimonies overlapped. One key element that emerged was the struggle to meet basic needs as an artist on insufficient and insecure income.
Brenda McIntyre, an Indigenous hand-drummer and musician whose testimony was read by a panel host, spoke about the challenge of being adequately paid for the work she produces.
“Artists are severely undervalued and constantly asked to work for free, as if it’s expected and as if we don’t have bills to pay,” she said.
“I often feel like I’m creating music just so I can give it away to corporations like Spotify that are compensated for my work. When people choose to stream and not buy, the artist makes almost nothing from it.”
Like several other artists on the panel, McIntyre has chronic health issues that make her situation even more challenging. She is on the Ontario Disability Support Program, which allows $1,169 maximum in support each month for a single person. But McIntyre can’t earn more than $200 extra each month without this government support being taken away.
She said that she has been unable to heal from chronic pain and PTSD because of constant fear her disability benefits will be revoked. Because she is immunocompromised, she has had to turn down in-person gigs during the pandemic and worries about future opportunities as it drags on.
If Canada instituted a national basic income, McIntyre said she would be able to work without worrying about having enough money for personal, medical or business expenses.
“If we artists had a basic income, that stress and fear over basic necessities would no longer weigh over our heads and we could be much more productive. It would help grow the economy, because when people have the means to do more than just get by, they put more back into the economy.”
McIntyre qualified for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit throughout the pandemic, which she said gave her a taste of what it could be like to spend more time being creative and worrying less about food and rent.
Not all artists on the panel were able to qualify for the emergency benefit, though. One woman calling from Manitoba, where she had to move back in with her parents during the pandemic, said she did not qualify because of her low earnings in 2019.
She also did not qualify for the Canada Recovery Benefit, as recipients were required to have experienced a 50-per-cent-or-greater loss of income from their previous year’s earnings. The small amount she was earning to keep herself afloat during the pandemic took her over that threshold.
Tia Julien, a music writer and editor living in Halifax, was in a similar situation. She did not qualify for CERB and as an immunocompromised person was unable to return to work once the pandemic hit.
“Myself and many others like me really depend on support from the government in emergency situations like this,” she said.
“Every single Canadian should be eligible for support in a crisis situation like the pandemic. The means-tested options that were released left too many people out. They made people dependent on their families, and unable to contribute to their work environment or practise as an artist. The main priority, more than ever, became surviving.”
Julien testified about the difficulties that young artists face when trying to get their careers started in an industry based on scarcity of opportunity and fierce competition.
“When you’re starting out, there’s no possible way to actually support yourself until you’ve had a chance to establish yourself and make connections, which often takes years and thousands of dollars in investment upfront.”
She said grants — which many artists rely on — are tenuous and hard to get, as they often require previous experience, offer limited application categories and take much work and many months to secure. They are not dependable income, she said.
Like many other artists, Julien has had to support herself in ways other than her art. But even with two part-time jobs that equal full-time hours she has not been able to sustain a living.
“UBI would not be a fix-all, but a start. It would provide an opportunity to take care of basic needs, to afford prescriptions, studio space and materials.”
“Culture has kept us all alive throughout this pandemic,” she said. “That is all the output of artists, and that deserves to be recognized, rewarded and sustained.”
After each artist’s testimony, the commissioners asked the person testifying to answer questions about how they would benefit from a basic income project, and how it should be administered.
One participant emphasized the need for any basic income plan to “de-commodify basic needs” such as housing and health care. A national plan should include access to affordable housing, she said, so that artists are not pushed out of the communities they are working in as a result of unaffordable rents.
Another woman suggested that a basic income would allow artists to access skills-training programs and educational opportunities such as mentorships.
Several participants agreed that a basic income would mean that artists would not have to be forced to work with institutions that do not treat them well or abuse positions of power. For racialized artists, and artists from other marginalized communities, it would allow the ability to pursue their art free from hierarchal structures that do not always have their best interests in mind.
The presentations underscored the economic benefit that a basic income plan would provide Canada, especially when it comes to artists’ contributions to the country’s gross domestic product. In 2017, the latest data available from Statistics Canada indicated that the arts and culture sector accounted for $53.1 billion of Canada’s total GDP.
In B.C., the culture sector makes up roughly three per cent of provincial GDP and provided nearly 100,000 jobs across the province before the pandemic.
Despite the benefits that a universal basic income could provide in ensuring the sector rebuilds and flourishes after the pandemic, a B.C. panel recently rejected it at the provincial level.
The panel’s report recommended several changes to social security programs, including raising disability rates and providing extended health benefits to low-income workers, but did not support a minimum income that would ultimately help raise many people out of poverty.
Artists, many of whom work contract and gig jobs, say they need more than just health benefits to survive.
“We should spend to prevent, rather than to rescue,” said one of the last testifiers on Sunday’s panel. “I believe enacting a basic income is a first step towards ensuring that no one has to go without basic necessities in this country. Lifting people up from the economic bottom lifts us all up.”
And lifting artists up, in particular, lifts up the whole.
“Artists engage in projects of mutual support and reciprocity. But those who work with the imagination must be given time and access to contribute their creativity to society.”