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As out-of-work Canadians begin to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) on Monday, many self-employed artists across the country continued to wait for news as to what kind of financial relief would be available to them amid the COVID-19 pandemic – and when it might come.

For musicians, writers, actors and another artists used to piecing together a living wage from multiple sources, the resourcefulness that usually helps keep them afloat has now put access to CERB payments into question – due to an eligibility requirement to have “no employment or self-employment income.”

Would the sale of a CD or two on a website, or the modest revenue from an improv class delivered via Zoom render an artist ineligible? Could a paid live-streamed performance for the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms series – which aims to aid artists in this time – backfire when it comes to the bottom line?

Rebecca Blair, a harpist based in Vancouver, was one of many artists wondering if she might need to cancel certain work in order to receive an emergency benefit that would be of greater financial value.

Blair’s earnings from performances – including regular gigs in seniors’ centres – have dropped down to zero due to COVID-19, but she continues to teach harp over video networking. Her monthly income is down to about 20 per cent of what it normally is – and she expects, if she’s lucky, to pull in $500 in April. But she notes: “If you lose students, you might lose them forever.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government would announce soon how those working 10 hours a week or less would be able to qualify for CERB. He further promised, “We will also have more to say for those who are working, but are making less than they would with the benefit.”

A timeline for this information was not announced, however. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail that, in creating CERB, the government had “prioritized a rapid relief over perfection."

“We are adjusting so that it doesn’t penalize certain people like gig workers,” he wrote. “We are also aware of the question of artist royalties and whether certain financial payments designed to help artists in need during the COVID-19 crisis will be considered.”

In addition to individual artists, arts institutions that manage the programs that have sprung up to help them are waiting for that information. The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, for instance, has been holding onto the fees they plan to pay local artists for daily Stuck in the House performances broadcast on the theatre company’s website, so as not to compromise anyone’s eligibility for CERB.

“I know that many of my colleagues that are looking at similar programming giving opportunities to artists, are curious about how they can compensate artists without affecting their eligibility,” said Citadel producer Jessie van Rijn.

Bobby Theodore, a playwright, translator and screenwriter based in Toronto, wondered whether he would have to hold back payments to himself. He had applied for the first payment of CERB having not received any income in 14 days, but, in the absence of clear information, he was uncertain if he’d have to leave cheques for small royalty payments uncashed to stay eligible – for instance, the $100 he is expecting from Playwrights Canada Press next month.

“I think there could be people who are afraid to get penalized and won’t apply [to CERB],” he said. “[The lack of clarity] is forcing people to make moral choices that they shouldn’t have to.”

Theodore hoped but was not confident that the government’s forthcoming information would clearly address more freelancers in his situation – who are not regularly paid on a weekly or monthly basis.

“My income works on an annual basis: I might make $20,000 in the month of April, but I might not make any money for the rest of the year,” Theodore said. The writer estimates that he has already lost 20 per cent of his expected annual income due to the COVID-19 crisis – and but notes that the two-year outlook for his finances could be even more devastating with theatre productions postponed or cancelled possibly into the new year.

Guilbeault hinted that further action specifically for the arts sector might be on the way. “We want to be there to support the arts and culture sector in these challenging times and are looking at a different array of measures.”

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