Winning a $50,000 cheque as a Scotiabank Giller Prize laureate or scoring a half-million-dollar advance from a publisher is always cause for jubilation for a writer, not to mention praise in the media.
But such triumphs are decidedly the exception - a distortion, in fact - of the writing life in Canada. The majority of published authors never get big advances, never see their books on the bestseller lists, never visit Rideau Hall for a Governor-General's Literary Awards ceremony nor share a tête-à-tête on CBC Radio One with Shelagh Rogers.
According to Statistics Canada, a Canadian scribe on average makes only between $18,000 and $22,000 annually from his or her writing - and this includes royalties from book sales as well as income from grants, giving readings and workshops, writing, say, reviews for magazines and newspapers, and earning a yearly stipend from the Public Lending Right Commission.
It is, in short, a hard life, fraught with long, lonely hours of work, occasional feasts and many famines (in 2005, an estimated 3,000 Canadian authors - 11 per cent of the total 27,500 who identified themselves either as self-employed or salaried writers - reported no earnings from their writing), not to mention the agony of public indifference.
But this life just might take a turn for the better starting this spring. Which is when the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists Fraternal Benefit Society expects to roll out its Writers' Coalition Benefits package.
The package will offer writers, editors, translators - "basically anybody in the writing industry," according to Deborah Windsor, executive director of the Writers' Union of Canada - access to the insured extended-health-care services most salaried employees take for granted, such as basic dental and vision care, subsidized prescription drugs, accident insurance and physiotherapy. (Pensions are also on the long-term wish list.)
The catalyst for the initiative is Susan Swan, at 63 a much-published author ( The Wives of Bath, What Casanova Told Me), academic (at Toronto's York University) and, until this year, chair of the Writers' Union of Canada. In this last capacity, she hosted a series of wine-and-cheese parties throughout 2007 for younger writers to get a feel for what they wanted the 1,800-member WUC to address.
Founded in 1973 by the likes of Margaret Laurence and Pierre Berton, the WUC, it's fair to say, has in the last 10 or 15 years lost some of the zip and purposefulness that originally shaped it. As Toronto novelist and Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith told Swan in an e-mail: "The image I have of [the union]is a place where under-published would-be writers over the age of 50 sit in rooms together and plaintively discuss ethnic and gender representation, the 'silencing of voices' and things like empowerment.... And then they talk about organic gardening."
As she went about her wine-fuelled consultations, Swan found a uniformity of opinion. "Pretty well all the younger writers said [they wanted]the same sort of thing - benefits, including pensions." Swan herself needed no convincing: She recalled "passing the hat" in the mid-1970s for the noted Canadian novelist and short-story writer Norman Levine, and this at a time when, "I hardly made enough to pay my rent."
Levine, in fact, died impoverished in rural England in 2005, joining Gwendolyn MacEwen, D.M. Fraser, Dorothy Livesay and Milton Acorn among those Canadian artists whose lives have ended in similar circumstances.
More recently, the Writers' Union found itself bringing "a very established writer" from Ontario to the attention of the Writers' Trust of Canada. The trust's George Woodcock Fund, created in 1989, provides emergency, short-term help to authors. The writer was "facing a very large dental expense that if it was not taken care of, could have built into future problems," Deborah Windsor noted. "He was literally faced with the choice of fixing the mouth or paying the rent."
Clearly the WUC, among others, is hoping for a more systematic solution to such dilemmas. Swan at first thought she'd have to petition the Harper government for help to get a no-frills benefits scheme going. But then fellow Writers' Union member and two-time Governor-General's winner Nino Ricci told her about the ACTRA Fraternal Benefit Society (AFBS), which has been the insurer and retirement trustee of English-language TV and film workers for more than 30 years.
ACTRA currently has a total of more than 20,000 members, including roughly 14,000 full-time ones. Its not-for-profit benefit society now administers an estimated $400-million in retirement-plan assets.
Working with the Writers' Coalition - the Writers' Union as well as the Playwrights Guild of Canada and the Periodical Writers of Canada (which in 2006 reported that almost 40 per cent of Canadian freelancers writing for magazines made less than $10,000 a year) - the AFBS agreed to do an electronic survey, four months in duration, starting in spring, 2008, to pinpoint what benefits writers wanted.
Happily, more than 600 participated in the survey - "a high level of response [that's given us]a pretty clear picture of what people are looking for" - and, with feedback in hand, Robert Underwood, president and CEO of the AFBS, is now busily preparing a model program. He plans to unveil it in May, followed by an enrolment drive to enlist as many as 300 initial subscribers.
Still to be determined are the premium levels and their payment schedule - but the expectation is that the regime will be considerably cheaper than that of commercial insurers. Of course, as Swan notes, "the more people who join, the lower the premium will end up being."
If the benefits arrangement achieves liftoff, the Writers' Coalition moves into working up retirement plans, possibly in partnership with ACTRA. As Swan remarked: "Only a very small minority of writers make enough from their books to support them in their old age."
Of course, writers aren't the only category of artists who face a decidedly shaky future as they grow older. Which is why the Writers' Union of Canada joined forces last year with Toronto's Dancer Transition Resource Centre for a study of "the senior Canadian artist," with the goal of providing that artist a measure of financial security, health care and affordable housing.
Seven other cultural organizations have now joined them to establish a steering committee for the research. They include Canadian Actors' Equity Association, Canadian Artists' Representation (visual artists), the American Federation of Musicians and the Canadian Music Centre (Canadian composers).
Work on the three-year project began last fall, with research conducted by veteran arts statistician Kelly Hill of Hamilton's Hill Strategies Research. The first phase involves a study of what other countries, most notably Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Australia and Ireland, are doing for artists in their senior years. This is to be followed by a wide-ranging survey of the Canadian scene. Although "we don't know exactly where [the study and its recommendations]are going, there seems to be a need for some sort of financial cushion for senior artists," Hill observed. "Pensions might be ideal. But that's also very expensive. So where does the money come from? There are huge questions about that."
There is already an old-age pension plan for writers, administered by the Ottawa-based Canadian Writers' Foundation, and it's been around since the Great Depression.
However, only published writers over 60 and deemed to have made "significant contributions to Canadian writing" are eligible to apply. Each applicant also must show that his or her annual income from all sources is less than $20,000. Currently, the number of writers it's helping is small (only eight), ditto the "pension" it provides - just $5,400 a year per recipient, paid in quarterly instalments.
"Yes, it's not all golden out there," says Canadian Writers' Foundation president Marianne Scott, noting that while novelists and non-fiction authors "quite often are the recipients of healthy prizes, that's not so much the case for dramatists and poets.
"There should be a minimum annual income in Canada that will get rid of some of these problems."