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Open letter regarding the extension of CERB

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau:

Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), the national association for professional visual artists, are grateful that the Federal Government has made the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) available to independent artists and other cultural workers, many of whom work in the gig economy, and especially for the changes made on April 15th, which allows more artists to qualify for these payments. 

We also welcome the Government of Canada’s decision to take action to extend CERB. However, the measures announced to date still leave far too many Canadians at risk of falling through the cracks or unable to navigate the many conditions this, and other programs impose. 

The economic implications of COVID-19 for visual and media artists in Canada have been devastating. We are amongst the lowest-income earners in the country (average income, $31,700 as of 2016 Census), and many of us have no access to EI, pensions or health benefits, as, according to Hill Strategies, 66% of visual artists are self-employed; this is the highest percentage among all artistic disciplines, and much higher than the proportions of all artists (52%) and all workers (12%). This crisis also disproportionately impacts women: 52% of artists in Canada are women, and in 9 provinces, that number is higher than the national average (2016 Census).

While we are seeing the slow re-opening of exhibition venues in various places across the country, visual and new media artists are still seeing income-generating options eliminated or severely reduced. Many exhibitions have already been delayed by many months or cancelled outright, and commercial galleries are closing under the financial strain. To complicate matters, many of the additional ‘gigs’ that artists often turn to, to supplement their incomes, continue to be limited  or unavailable due the pandemic’s effects: retail, restaurant, and gallery layoffs continue across the country, freelance contracts are limited due to the economic impact of the pandemic, and teaching studio-based classes will not be an option for quite some time.  Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements will continue to hinder artists’ mobility and ability to seek a range of opportunities for many months to come.

Visual and media artists, like other cultural sector workers, are typically ineligible for Employment Insurance benefits. Therefore, we welcomed the introduction of the CERB to help get through this crisis. However, with our industry severely impacted, and sources of income months away from getting back to normal, we desperately need that support not only to continue, but to be EXPANDED. 

This is why we are calling on the Government of Canada to do the following:

  1. Extend the CERB for at least another 16 weeks.
  2. Re-define eligibility for low-income self-employed persons to be based on gross income, and the allowable earnings under CERB to be based on net income. This distinction makes perfect sense for low-income self-employed persons. Doctors and lawyers, who are self-employed, earn higher gross incomes, and they may deduct large overhead expenses (such as staff salaries, officer overhead, etc), but they still earn a decent living from that net income. This is not the case for self-employed artists, many of whom are far below the poverty line. The median income for visual artists is $20,000, which is 54% lower than the average worker. Many artists average their income from one year to the next, and the good years offset the bad ones. Ideally, the $5,000 eligibility barrier may be removed, but failing that, clarifying that self-employed workers may be able to use their gross income to determine eligibility may make all the difference for artists who may otherwise be considered ineligible for CERB and EI.
  3. Eliminate any proposed fines and other punishments for anyone that is deemed ultimately ineligible for CERB, if their previous years’ earnings are below the lowest tax bracket ($48,535). This is particularly important because there has been inadequate guidance so far on whether applicants should use their net or gross income when making an application.
  4. Clarify the relationship of CERB to royalties: there should be no cap on earnings for pre-existing works during the claim period. This distinction is particularly important to artists exhibiting or screening work while receiving CERB, as the artwork may have been made before the CERB claim, but the royalties may be received during the period of CERB entitlement, even if their invoice was issued well before their claim. This was the intent of the guidance offered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, but there is a lack of clarity on the CERB website.
  5. After the extension period, transform CERB into an ongoing guaranteed income program that will ensure low-income Canadians will have a basic monthly income they can rely on. 48% of Canadians don’t have $200 in case of an emergency, while 1 in 5 Canadians work in precarious and gig jobs and do not have access to Employment Insurance or paid sick leave. Basic income will protect families and the economy, and assist in Canada’s economic recovery in the long term. The benefit could be progressively taxed back according to income. Allowing low income workers to retain the full benefit is a strong incentive to continue working. A guaranteed income would help alleviate poverty, eliminate the patchwork of programs, streamline administration, and support ALL Canadians now, and after this crisis is past.

We once again want to express our sincerest appreciation that Canada quickly took the initiative to introduce CERB, and for your willingness to really listen to our concerns. It should come as no surprise that this safety net has provided more financial stability than many self-employed artists have ever had, and it has been most welcome during this time of great difficulty and uncertainty. 

In Solidarity,

Sydney Lancaster

CARFAC National Board Member

On behalf of the CARFAC National Board of Directors


Cc: Hon. Bill Morneau, PC, MP, Minister of Finance

Hon. Stephen Guilbeault, PC, MP, Minister of Canadian Heritage

Hon. Diane Lebouthillier, PC, MP, Minister of National Revenue

Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, PC, MP, President of the Treasury Board


Photo Credit: Art Supplies by Celeste Lindell