CERB cuts devastating Canada’s creative sector

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Artists who are out on the streets once again because of COVID lockdowns are lobbying furiously for a return to a full Canadian Emergency Response Benefit for their sector.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 6, 2022.

OTTAWA—Musical blockbuster Come From Away has already been seen by a million Canadians.

But if you missed the Canadian performance in Toronto, you won’t be able to see it in this country again.

The story of how the people of Newfoundland opened their hearts to passengers stranded by the downing of the World Trade Centre is reverberating around the world.

It is the most successful Canadian musical ever produced and has prompted a domestic theatre renaissance that has already spawned more live theatre offerings for the globe.

The numbers published by David Mirvish when he announced the shuttering over the Christmas week were indeed impressive.

The press release cited box office sales of $115-million, including over $15-million in HST.

Mirvish estimated the economic impact on the Toronto economy at $920-million.

Mirvish pointed a finger directly at government, “in other parts of the world, the government has stepped up to support the commercial theatre sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thus protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs the sector creates. That is the case in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia—where productions of Come From Away continue.”

But in Canada there is no such government support.

Mirvish’s holiday announcement provoked shock waves in Canada’s artistic community.

New Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has been working feverishly to find a solution to the dilemma.

And artists who are out on the streets once again because of COVID lockdowns are lobbying furiously for a return to a full Canadian Emergency Response Benefit for their sector.

With all the theatres shuttered, it is impossible for the thousands of people who depend on live performance for their livelihoods to even feed their families.

Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault has emerged as a champion for those artists.

He has been working with unions representing the arts community trying to figure out the best solutions for support in these trying times.

But the question begs. If the city of Toronto garners almost a billion dollars in economic benefits from live performances, why are the arts treated like an afterthought in Canada’s COVID business support model?

For some reason, if you are manufacturing autos or pumping oil, your jobs are worth the full attention of governments.

If you are artists, bringing joy, perspective and global reach to the Canadian story, you are left picking up the scraps.

And it was always thus.

For some bizarre reason, commercial success in cultural industries has generally disqualified creators from government support.

There are government incentives and subsidies for book publishers, media content creators and community not-for-profit operations. But live commercial productions are generally left to their own devices as they are profit-making enterprises. However, governments help lots of industries in the name of economic development. Why exclude the cultural industries?

On the Hill, there is much discussion about how to turn this around. Not much is happening at Queens’s Park either even though the provincial capital is by far the largest beneficiary of commercial entertainment investment.

Some are discussing possible tax credits, which kickstarted a robust growth in Canadian film opportunities back in the nineties.

The tax credit introduced then has been replicated around the world, and it has been one of the best models for media content creation on the globe.

That credit was introduced by the Department of Finance, in tandem with Heritage, which begs the question. Where is Toronto-based Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland in this picture?

The cut to the CERB may have made some debt hawks on Bay Street happy. But it has devastated the creative sector, who continue to lobby for direct support for unemployed artists locked out of their places of employment by pandemic fiats.

Where, too, is the Department of Industry in this quest for solutions?

Francois-Philippe Champagne’s ministerial title is minister of innovation, science and industry. Surely the world of entertainment is built on innovation.

Before Come From Away, there was no real hope of developing a domestic theatre industry equivalent to London’s west end or Broadway.

But this magical story got Canada’s foot in the door for the creation of a whole new innovative industry, live theatre that actually makes money and entertains.

The brains behind innovation in Canada need to get together and find a solution to this gaping hole in public policy. All hands need to be on deck, including the prime minister’s office.

Come From Away should not have Gone Away.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.