Performers hope for CRB expansion with program end

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“CERB and CRB were a godsend. For pretty much every actor I know. ”

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Just before COVID-19 landed in Ottawa, veteran actor John Koensgen had two ambitious theater productions on his schedule.

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One was a Shakespeare play that would have lasted 11 weeks in Toronto last summer. The other was Waiting For Godot, but in Inuktitut, which was to take place in the Canadian Arctic and beyond.

The pandemic has suspended not only these two big projects, but also almost all of Koensgen’s other money generators. Without income, he applied for the Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit (ECP) and then his successor, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRP).

“CERB and CRB were a godsend. For just about every actor I know, ”Koensgen said.

He collected as many federal benefits as he could, for the maximum number of weeks, and was able to make car payments, grocery shopping, and pay utility bills and taxes. “He covered the expenses we had and that’s it. There was nothing to sell.

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The CRB program, which gave more than $ 27 billion to nearly 2.1 million applicants who were frequently self-employed and lost their jobs due to COVID-19, but were not entitled to benefits. Employment Insurance (EI) officially ends Saturday.

But Koensgen said if he is extended and if he is eligible, he will ask for additional support. “Oh yeah, absolutely,” Koensgen said.

Performers such as Koensgen were far from the only beneficiaries. But actors, musicians and others in the concert economy tended to need the benefits, at least intermittently, as performance venues and concert halls closed during closings and only reopened gradually.

Performers have had to pivot and diversify their sources of income, hoping that something like normal will return. But some, like Koensgen, continue to face severely strangled professional lives, and it is on their behalf that a coalition of unions representing more than 50,000 workers in Canada’s creative industries continues to pressure the federal government to ensure that the CRB be extended.

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“We were the first to close and we will be the last to reopen,” read an October 8 letter to the government from the coalition, which includes the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, the Canadian Federation of Musicians, the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees and Associate Designers of Canada.

“There are still restrictions on large crowds and therefore our members are largely prohibited from returning to work,” the letter continued. “The work that exists now is not enough to rebuild a life, and it will not be for a while.”

While various federal programs have supported festivals and venues, “funding for organizations does not flow to the self-employed… by the time they reopen their doors, many workers have had to find work outside the home. industry to survive, there will not be enough workers left to put on the concerts and productions that Canadians dream of. This is why income supports for individual artistic workers are essential, ”the letter said.

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Garrett Warner was a full-time musician before the pandemic and had to collect CERB during lockdowns as there were no concerts.  Today, he no longer receives benefits and works full time for the federal public service.
Garrett Warner was a full-time musician before the pandemic and had to collect CERB during lockdowns as there were no concerts. Today, he no longer receives benefits and works full time for the federal public service. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

For more than 40 of his 70 years, Koensgen has been immersed in the entertainment world and has been everything from an actor on stage and in films to a director and even a fight choreographer.

But the pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges of being an older worker in an industry that favors young people. “There is less work for people my age,” he says.

As for pivoting beyond his domain, Koensgen said: “I’m too old to get a job as a waiter.” Hopefully his production Waiting For Godot still hits, maybe 2022 or 2023, he said.

After more than a year essentially without concerts, Ottawa jazz guitarist Garrett Warner, 26, found full-time employment as a federal public servant.

While Warner made money during the pandemic through live streaming and odd jobs, he said he took the CRB off and on again, especially during lockdowns. “It was absolutely a lifeline and continues to be for so many artists,” Warner said.

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Pierre Brault repeats his solo production Portrait of an Unidentified Man in May 2017.
Pierre Brault repeats his solo production Portrait of an Unidentified Man in May 2017. Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

Ottawa actor and playwright Pierre Brault said he had received performances on and off after the pandemic. “I lost a year and a half of work in one weekend,” said Brault.

He was able to earn money as an actor through live solo performances.

“Switching to live broadcasts was the answer,” Brault said. “But that’s only gone so far, and CRB was a wonderful bridge to take me from one livestream to another.

“I could cover my rent, cover my bills, but my question was, how sustainable is that? Said Brault. “It made me realize how vulnerable the performing arts and artists in general are to the vagaries of the economy.”

Henry Shikongo on the set of a short film.
Henry Shikongo on the set of a short film. Photo by Henry Shikongo /Handout

“These are really tough times for artists,” said Ottawa-raised actor Henry Austin Shikongo, who said he too has seen benefits on and off after his theatrical work has dried up.

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Depending on the amount of work in commercials or movies that Shikongo found, he was entitled to benefits. He said he was “really lucky” when he landed a one-year teaching contract that began last month at Syracuse University in New York City.

After the pandemic eradicated his possibilities to perform in Toronto, Ottawa-raised pianist Deniz Lim-Sersan, 26, returned home and lived with his mother.

At first, he did not apply for benefits when he was eligible because he was reluctant to receive the money while living without rent. But he eventually reaped some profit, even as he expanded his musical endeavors. With a good connection, he was able to land a job composing music for social media ads for brands such as Canada Goose, L’Oréal and Walmart.

Over the past few months he has had a few opportunities to perform, performing for the Ottawa Jazz Festival and at weddings and the Rideau Club.

Still, Lim-Sersan said, “If things were fully open I would be a lot busier.”

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