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Artpreneur 2020 keynote and Basic Income Guarantee advocate Zainub Verjee. Photo provided.

Interview: Artpreneur keynote Zainub Verjee on a basic income guarantee for Canadian creatives

By Ryan Pepper on November 19, 2020


It’s no secret that the arts sector is in a crisis. COVID-19 restrictions closed venues and institutions in March and many still haven’t reopened—and many, some in Ottawa, won’t open again. This month’s annual Artpreneur conference is dedicating three days to the disruptions in Ottawa’s creative sector. But instead of mourning the loss of venues, incomes, and livelihoods, the conference is looking to the future for sustainable, lasting solutions.

One of the buzzy proposals is a Basic Income Guarantee (B.I.G.), which gained popularity after the successful rollout of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The idea now has wide, cross-partisan support.

Zainub Verjee is one of B.I.G.’s early supporters. Verjee, the Laureate of the 2020 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, is a practicing artist who has shown her artwork in the Venice Biennale, MoMA, and art galleries across Canada, will deliver the keynote speech at Artpreneur. She’s also a long-time advocate for issues of artists’ labour and income and, along with co-writers Craig Berggold and Clayton Windatt, penned a public letter to the Prime Minister calling for a Basic Income Guarantee.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Apt613: Could you provide a brief introduction to the concept of a Basic Income Guarantee (B.I.G.) and what specifically Canada is looking to implement?

Zainub Verjee: Basic Income Guarantee (B.I.G.) in simple terms is an unconditional cash transfer from the government to individuals to enable everyone to meet their basic needs, participate in society, and live with dignity, regardless of work status.

In 1984, the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, also known as the Macdonald Commission, included a recommendation for a Mincome-like programme that was never implemented. This was revisited in the 1990s but B.I.G. was not introduced. Instead, Canada has slowly drifted towards a gradual introduction of programmes that look a lot like B.I.G. for parts of the population. Basic income is already there in the form of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which provides monthly payments to seniors who are receiving Old Age Security Pension (OAS)!

What the COVID-19 pandemic manifested is the underlying conditions of the art and culture sector and exposed its precarity. I wrote about it here.

The resurgence of interest in Basic Income across political parties is a welcome sign and we should keep up the pressure and call on them to deliver on this ask.

Broadly, in the years that you’ve been studying artist income, what have you found? What stands out to you? Have improvements been made since you first started?

There have been some incremental improvements, but it does not reflect what has been recommended. The public-policy context in which art and culture function is not a priority either for the politicians or for the scores of artists and culture workers who do not comprehend the politics of culture or the institutions that they engage with.

Can you talk a little about #artists4basicincome and other culture sector initiatives advocating for universal basic income? What has the response been from the arts community? Given the public letter, it seems like this is a broad movement.

Yes indeed! #artists4basicincome is gathering immense steam and multiple affinity groups have emerged not only in Canada, but internationally. I was recently speaking at Monash University’s Creative Directions 2020 in Australia about issues of basic income and creative labour in this pandemic.

These (principles) have a direct impact on what is understood as the social determinants of health, especially mental health. Let’s not reduce this to a cost-benefit analysis. It has multiple unquantifiable benefits. 

In another instance, a Media Arts Network Ontario–led affinity group is working to create public commissioners who elicit witness testimonies from artists to speak on their living and working conditions and hence the imperative of basic income.

The CERB might be thought of as a temporary and limited basic income. How have artists benefited from CERB? What have you heard?

Many artists told me how much it helped them alleviate their situation during the pandemic. But more interestingly, what was encouraging was how the gig economy workers quickly pivoted to help others. Gig workers went to the aid of people living in tents and who were not in a position to seek help from the government. This, to me, is very reassuring and vindicates my belief that a Basic Income Guarantee will only foster good in people.

A lot of focus is on the income of individual artists, but you are also executive director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. What are the applications/implications of B.I.G. for cultural institutions and their employees?

It will radically change the political economy of the art labour. It will strengthen the art and culture ecosystem and de-link the cultural institutions from the social programs downloaded from the province to the local governments. In short, this will only strengthen Canadian art and Canadian artists.

You are also an advocate for equity and sustainability in the arts. How does B.I.G. intersect with questions of equity and marginalized groups?

It aligns with the core principles—poverty reduction and income inequality, equitable access, human rights, and dignity. These have a direct impact on what is understood as the social determinants of health, especially mental health. Let’s not reduce this to a cost-benefit analysis. It has multiple unquantifiable benefits. Imagine the social cohesion this elimination of poverty could produce, offering dignity and autonomy!

How would you encourage other artists and culture sector workers to get involved in the push for basic income?

First and foremost, be informed and second, act! The CERB transition to “reformed” Employment Insurance was a knee-jerk response. What it fails to look at is the nature of the workforce and the critical shifts therein. Greater numbers of people find themselves falling between the gaps.

Write letters to your MP, MPP expressing your support of B.I.G. to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet colleagues. You may also express your support for ongoing initiatives towards Basic Income Guarantee by writing to Craig Berggold, referencing this interview or the Artpreneur 2020 conference. Also join the work of our partners Canadian Basic Income Coalition and Ontario Basic Income Network.

Zainub Verjee is the keynote speaker at this year’s Artpreneur conference. To register, check out their website