Third in a series of four stories by Steven Ross Smith

Commissioned by Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

We usually don’t consider the work of the artist as hazardous. But it can be.

Gilles Turcotte, a clarinetist with the Saskatoon Symphony recently sustained a whiplash-like injury while piggy-backing his son in the neighbor’s pool. This caused a pinched nerve in his upper spinal column. Turcotte describes the resulting symptoms as “a numb hand, a crushing pressure between the shoulder blades, and a vice-grip feeling just above the elbow.” For a clarinetist who relies on arm position, flexibility and precise movement of the fingers, this is a crippling ailment.

Gilles realizes now that the fateful moment in the pool was set up by the cumulative effect of twenty years of professional playing. At ten years of age Gilles was in the school band program playing the clarinet. In high school he was a “band geek”, playing in the jazz band and the senior band. The schedule was rigorous. By 6:45 a.m. he was on the bus to 7:30 rehearsal four days a week.

After high school Turcotte enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan to study music. He majored in performance, practiced nine hours a day, and graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1985.

Practice and rehearsal involve a lot of repetition, and being in the symphony orchestra involves the stresses of playing intuitively with the conductor and colleagues, and performing perfectly. Tension and repetition form the seedbed of injuries.

This past fall, for two months Gilles kept playing the clarinet despite his injury. But finally the pain forced him to take a month off to rest the injured nerves and tissue and to receive treatment. This meant losing November’s income while taking on the expense of proper treatment with a physiotherapist and a Mitzvah practitioner. Turcotte paid for the Mitzvah treatments himself because they are not covered under the health benefits he enjoys in his day job as a school music teacher. And there was no compensation for the lost income.

Dancer Robin Poitras is the artistic director of New Dance Horizons, a contemporary dance company in Regina. When we watch her dance we are aware of the body itself as a medium of expression. We might not think about the danger of injury from this expressive and often graceful art. But it makes great demands on the dancer’s body. Foot, leg, and even back injuries are not uncommon. Poitras knows these demands, and knows broken toes and sprained ankles. In fact, she’s broken one toe twice. Such injuries can immediately halt performance – the essential element of a dancer’s livelihood. In the long term they can lead to chronic ailments like arthritis.

Dancers often start young, when injury, income and benefits are far from their minds. As a youngster, Poitras was a highland dancer. She eventually went to York University to study dance therapy and education, then performance and creation, and in 1984 she embarked on a performance career. Her solo works have been presented across Canada and in Europe. For Poitras the body is an instrument, and the dancer must bring all levels of awareness to that body to maximize artistic expression and to maintain its viability and integrity.

Poitras co-founded New Dance Horizons ( in 1986. It is now a nationally recognized organization dedicated to celebrating new visions in Canadian contemporary dance. Their activities include creation, performance, collaboration, education and more. It is Saskatchewan’s only contemporary professional dance company, and is a precious resource because dancers require a milieu in which to train, create and perform. Without this milieu, young Saskatchewan dancers will not develop or will move away to find opportunities. Without dancers and dance facilities, people have fewer chances to see dance live, and hence the audience diminishes. Robin Poitras “works hard with an extraordinary team at New Dance Horizons” to present high quality dance, to foster a milieu and to combat this attrition.

New Dance Horizons (NDH) leads in another area. It is an exemplary employer. As the result of her full-time employment as artistic director of NDH, Robin Poitras has a very good employee benefit package. All staff receives the benefit and insurance package; dancers, even if self-employed, are covered when contracted by NDH; dance-related injuries are fully included; and dancers under contract are even eligible for holiday pay.

The value of such coverage is enormous. A foot or leg injury may keep a dancer from dancing. But it can also prevent the dancer from doing his or her other job – the one taken to support the dancing. Yet not all dancers in all settings, or artists in other genres, are as well covered as those at New Dance Horizons.

Injury can occur to painters, sculptors and potters who work with toxic substances; or to woodworkers who use dangerous tools; and stress can take a toll in any discipline. Along with injury and pain can come financial and emotional havoc. The care, healing and the implications – physical, financial and emotional – very often remain the artist’s responsibility alone.

The Saskatchewan Status of the Artist Act, passed in 2002, notes several principles as a foundation for developing policies to benefit artists. Among these principles is: “the right of artists to enjoy the same economic and social benefits available to other workers in Saskatchewan.” The act also suggests that an advisory committee be formed to investigate, among other things, “the application of workers compensation legislation and occupational health and safety legislation to artists.” These principles and recommendations, until they become regulations supported by enactment throughout all artistic disciplines, are ineffective. Currently a great many artists, if they become injured or incapacitated during the creation or performance of their work, are vulnerable and unsupported.

Positive models and initiatives do exist. Musicians have a union (the Canadian branch of the American Federation of Musicians) which offers protection through wage standards, access to medical and disability insurance, pension plans and more. Still, contracted, self-employed musicians may often be without benefits, even when they are long-term players in an orchestra.

In 1986, dance professionals in Toronto formed the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists (CADA) to counter the vulnerability of the independent dancer. A British Columbia chapter formed in Vancouver in 1992. CADA acts to develop policies regarding working conditions and pay scales for dancers. In B.C. the CADA dancer- members have successfully lobbied for the inclusion of dance artists in Worker’s Compensation Board coverage. In Regina, members of the professional contemporary dance community have met to discuss these principles and the possibility of forming a Saskatchewan chapter of CADA.

While artists fortunate to be allied with CADA and A.F.M. are protected, others are not, and operating without a safety net is risky. The injuries suffered by Turcotte and Poitras have healed well enough for them to keep performing. But what of artists who become disabled for a long period, or permanently? Assistance may be minimal or non-existent.

Arts organizations which hire artists must create or lobby for access to these benefits for all and then pay their share toward the cost. Professional membership organizations of artists must also continue to lobby for legitimacy. But action must be taken by government itself, for government controls agencies that ultimately set labour standards.

Workers Compensation and Employment Insurance must develop categories for the work that all artists do; these departments must recognize the hazards artists face, and open up access to support programs. Currently, in order for most self-employed artists to access Workers’ Compensation they must pay both the employer’s and employee’s premiums, which makes it very expensive if not impossible. And Employment Insurance covers only employees.

Gilles Turcotte, as well performing with the Saskatoon symphony, is a member of the trio co-neK-shen, a soloist, a composer of music for film, a private lessons teacher, and a music educator. He can’t rely only on performing to pay the bills. The non-performing jobs take precious time from his musicianship. Because of this, he says, “often you end up practicing not to get better, but just to survive.” Yet Gilles feels satisfied. “As a musician I have a role in society. I have a role as an educator, as a model for kids and other people. I demonstrate discipline, conviction and expertise. Kids and others learn from me and from my example.”

Robin Poitras and Gilles Turcotte are just two examples of the incredible value that artists bring to our lives and our culture in Saskatchewan. The provision of a safety net of social benefits, of health and safety mechanisms for artists is overdue. This security ought to be given through their primary work as creators and presenters of artistic works. It would be a sign of society’s recognition of the value of artists’ work – work that entertains, provokes, and enriches our lives.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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