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Zainub Verjee speaks out on Commons committee report on status of the artist as well as labour rights for cultural workers

Zainub Verjee
For the past four decades, Zainub Verjee has been a thought leader and a champion of the arts in Canada.

This spring, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage issued a major report to Parliament on the Status of the Artist Act. It came less than two years after a now-retired senator, Patricia Bovey, had introduced An Act respecting the Declaration on the Essential Role of Artists and Creative Expression in Canada.

Bovey’s legislation passed through the Senate in less than a year. However, it has not gone beyond first reading in Parliament after being introduced by the now-deceased Jim Carr. Meanwhile, the recent Heritage committee report includes 20 recommendations.

To assess the significance of these two developments, Pancouver reached out to Zainub Verjee, a long-time champion of the arts in Canada.

Now a Senior Fellow of Massey College and a McLaughlin College Fellow, she is widely admired as a public intellectual, writer, critic, cultural administrator, and artist.  In June, Verjee will receive an honorary degree from SFU at the spring convocation.

Pancouver asked Verjee several questions about arts policy in the wake of the release of the Heritage committee report. Her responses are printed below.

Pancouver: Recently two events happened in the Parliament. While the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Report on Strengthening the Status of the Artist in Canada made a set of recommendations, the bill regarding the central role of an artist has gone nowhere in the House of Commons. What should we make of these developments?

Zainub Verjee: I am glad that you brought these two happenings together in one question. This was one of the most underreported stories in mainstream Canadian media.

It shows what support artists have in the House of Commons! Ironically, the media silence on this issue about the realities of artists is more telling! It raises more questions than answers. Was it a case of the Bill on the central role of artists clashing with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Report on Strengthening the Status of the Artist?

Forces behind the two prospective legislative paths were different and distinct. We all know that the government functions through its committees. In political terms, arts is generally approached as an expediency, and it doesn’t surprise me that there was no outcry even from the broader art community.

The challenges are hidden in plain sight and apart from rhetorical lip service, the issues are kicked down the road.

The central role of the artist was outlined in a 10-point Declaration Respecting the Essential Role of Arts and Creative Expression in Canada. It’s part of the bill that will help further advocacy and support for the arts. The goal of this bill was to provide both vision and a baseline for multiple pieces of legislation.

In my conversations with then-Senator Bovey, I was pushing for a more robust articulation that stood the test of history. In my extensive and written input in this process, I had highlighted the imperative of four points: art is a public good; that the labour of artist be recognized at par with all other professional labour in its content and scope of work as per the Status of the Artist declaration (1980); that the atypical work of an artist be legally acknowledged in defining their income and working conditions as per the Status of the Artist declaration (1980); and, that artist have a central place in society and through their work they foster and strengthen the civil society.

The fervent case that I was making was to deter the forces that could simply reduce the prospective bill to gloss over key documents, including the Massey Report, and the inherent contestations and emerge as a statement of a status quo.

However, this bill did not see the light of the day and was allowed to die. While on the other hand, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage presented a Report on Strengthening the Status of the Artist with a set of recommendations.

Zainub Verjee
Artwork by Zainub Verjee.

Pancouver: In May 2020 in the thick of the pandemic, you wrote a commentary exposing the hypocrisy of artists’ labour from a policy perspective. You spoke at that time of the importance of Status of the Artist Act. This spring, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage issued its report on the Status of the Artist. What’s your overall impression of this document?

ZV: Yes, that was the piece I wrote in the thick of pandemic. Though the centrality of the role of artists in society has never been questioned, the strength or fragility of artists is in what we envisage. As the ironies of these times reveal, despite the legislation, the status of artists in Canada is uncertain. The world of labour looks a lot like the way art labour has looked for decades.

With this context, I wanted to foreground the issue of Status of the Artist, a declaration made in the 21st session of UNESCO at its meeting in Belgrade, recommending the adoption of the Status of Artist on its 40th anniversary. UNESCO was undertaking to produce a comprehensive report on the current state of implementation of the 1980 Recommendation.

In October 1980, Canada became a signatory to this declaration. By1992, the federal Status of the Artist Act was passed and it was not until 1995 that substantial provisions of the act were implemented.

As per its mandate, the committee studied the Status of the Artist Act and its impact on improving basic working conditions for artists.

However, the standing committee report is more telling of the policy shifts in play! In a way, it is a reading of the current moment in history, pointing toward the shifts underway, which are clearly part of a larger cultural transition invoking more than just arts. When one examines the exchanges and witness’s presentations, it clearly transpires how the House of Commons committee became a site for political football, thus missing on moot issues at hand. The conversation was partisan and lurked in the shadow of Bill C-11, known as the Online Streaming Act, which received Royal Assent on April 27, 2023, after the consideration of amendments by the House.

It raises questions for me such as: what does the macroeconomics scenario imply for the political economy of the culture sector? How does it impact the labour of the artist? What are the sectoral priorities and desired shifts? What kind of future are we looking at? How does the sector reconfigure and recalibrate in these shifting times?

I am encouraged by the 20 recommendations made by the committee. However, discerning these two points stand out for me.

One, on the labour of artists. Today, we are governed by what is considered the New Consensus Macroeconomics. For people familiar with the domain, irrespective of their views, the Bank of Canada’s new mandate offers a clear insight into how labour is understood—“maximum sustainable employment” (which for critics is highly uncertain and is determined by factors outside the control of the central bank). Isn’t it then not surprising, the reason why most central banks do not have explicit and formal targets for employment? Where does the artist fit in this?

In the last few years there has been an increase in the focus on the idea of artistic labour, questions of waged work, and what is the place of art in such a re-assessment of work. But the irony is that much of the artistic labour cannot be sold, hence removed from the market to be become decommodified labour. Thus, we see decommodified labour is almost synonymous to precarious work.

Two, concomitant to the idea of decommodified labour in the arts, we see a similar prevalence in the amateur sports sector. An amateur sports person is in the same boat as the artist. What we have seen here is that with the festivalization of culture which began post- Washington Consensus. This came courtesy of the biennialization of art as part of the global dislocation of art labour on one hand, and on the other, embedding itself as a central plank of urban and cultural policy. What began with the impetus of creative economy dovetailed into the global cities paradigm of cultural planning. This is where festivals became the central features of urban policy. This has now resulted in what I term as the SET Complex—Sports, Entertainment and Tourism Complex. We are seeing its consolidation now.

Pancouver: We’re curious to hear your thoughts on the recommendation calling for reform of employment insurance program as it pertains to artists. What do you think of that?

ZV: You are referring to the 5th Recommendation: That the Government of Canada accelerate the reform for a modernized employment insurance (EI) program that accommodates for the nature of artistic work and the various employment realities of cultural workers, that allows them to pay and withdraw from EI, and that makes the program more accessible for artists and cultural workers to all EI regular and special benefits.

But as an aside, isn’t it an oxymoron—shouldn’t it be termed unemployment insurance rather than employment?

Anyway, it sounds good and heartening! Let’s take a step back. The recent EI reform undertaken primarily stems out of a 2017 report that was presented to the then social development minister, Jean-Yves Duclos. It offered an analysis across 61 programs in eight departments for gaps in income-support programs, which were based on a 1970s understanding of the workforce. Rather than initiating a clear departure from the status quo on income security, it doesn’t offer anything substantial. For example, where is the capacity to protect those between ages 18 and 64 from living in or falling into poverty, working poor or otherwise?

Broader advocacy made the Standing Committee on Finance recommended in December 2018 that the government “recognize the professional status of Canadian artists by implementing fair taxation, and establishing a more coherent and predictable support and fiscal ecosystem”.

Not only that, the pandemic added huge complexity to understanding the shifting terms of labour on one hand as the notion of artist was being reduced to the idea of a gig worker.

Both CARFAC and RAAV continue to maintain a position to establish a collective bargaining regime as an imperative to the betterment of conditions under which artists live and do work. I think it is a missed opportunity to highlight the need for a restructured architecture of income security and bring forth the stronger argument for a Guaranteed Basic Income.

In 2020, I co-authored, along with Craig Berggold and Clayton Windatt, an open letter to the prime minister on behalf of 75,000 artists from many backgrounds and regions across Canada. In solidarity we urged him to transform CERB into an ongoing guaranteed basic income program that would ensure low-income Canadians will have a basic monthly income they can rely on. Perhaps, this letter gained enough political traction but fell into the pattern that has been seen in Canada—basic income has re- emerged every few decades! Here of course I must not forget how in 1984, the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, also known as the Macdonald Commission, included a recommendation for a Mincome-like program that was never implemented.

Pancouver: What do you think of the recommendation for an Artist Resale Right to ensure artists are paid their fair due based on the value of their work?

ZV: Artist Resale Right (ARR) is a no-brainer and it will allow visual artists to receive 5 perent when their work is resold—just as they do in at least 94 other countries—implying 94 countries have legislation to back ARR while we don’t and it’s 2023!

The ARR can be brought forward through an amended Copyright Act, which would entitle visual artists to receive a royalty payment each time their work is resold publicly. As CARFAC argues: “Writers continue to get paid when their books are reprinted. Composers and musicians get paid whenever their work is played on the radio, in a bar or in a movie. Not all art makes it to the secondary market just as not all books sell, and not all songs make it to the radio. But when art is resold, artists should be able to share in their work’s ongoing value.” Thus, it is premised on the argument that artwork often grows in value over time, and artists currently have no legal right to receive income from this growth.

However, to frame ARR as a panacea for an income supplement for artists is very misplaced. The numbers and the realities of primary and secondary markets tell another set of stories!

Pancouver: At the end of the day, what impact could this report have on the lives of working artists across Canada.

ZV: It is not as much about the report per se but whether the government will heed and enact the recommendations.

But your question also points toward our Constitution and the place of arts and culture in that.

Here I am inclined to go to a tumultuous period of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the aftermath of the failure of accords—Meech Lake and Charlottetown—in an attempt to bring the country together. I was involved in those years in the capacity as a Vancouver moderator of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, also known as the Spicer Commission. In the midst of these conversations, I want to pick up on the deliberations of the Standing Committee on Communication and Culture in 1991 and point to two key observations: one, it noted that the Constitution is silent on the issue of jurisdiction over Culture. However, it clarified: “that provinces generally were to retain control over provincial and local matters which would invariably include Culture”; and two, it explored the idea of a “Cultural Accord” as a partnership between all levels of government but did not offer any specifics but a general framework. However, the committee recommended that the Cultural Accord “not be constitutionalised”.

I explored some of these issues in detail in a talk entitled “Teleos, nomos, ethos and the Massey Report” that I gave at Massey College in Toronto.

Here I am trying to drive your attention to the fact that the committee says: “Culture is not a category with any constitutional significance under the 1867 Constitutional Act. Either level of government is perfectly free to enact laws which might directly affect culture, as long as there is an appropriate constitutional foundation for such laws in the Act.”

Pancouver: Will governments at all levels work in tandem to elevate the status of artists?

ZV: The answer to your question is whether there will be enough political will as tailwinds to the cause of artists. The report could help build consensus and also allay public fears about artists in identifying their central role in society.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.