Welcome to another installment of my blog Batts Outta Hell.
For those of you who are new to my blog, I’m a stand-up comedian and actor based in Toronto and when I get really wound up about something I take it out on my blog. The last piece I wrote was an open letter to the Prime Minister regarding the current state of stand-up comedy in Canada. Here it is for your reference if you wanna take a dip: http://sandrabattaglini.net/just-a-little-reciprocity/
To recap! Canada is home to some of the best stand-up comedy in the world and a thriving community exists from coast to coast, yet our government does not consider it an art form so it’s not eligible to receive funding. This is truly an erroneous oversight since I can only describe the people in my community to be some of the most magnificent artists I’ve ever had the opportunity to watch create. I attended my first ever Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal this past summer and my peeps were true heroes, representing this art form and our community so elegantly and brilliantly. I’m very proud to be a part of this fellowship.
I keep hearing over and over again that comedy is Canada’s greatest legacy to the world – it certainly is its greatest export especially to the United States. As testament to this, Canada’s own Jim Carey was honoured with the Generation Award at Just for Laughs. He’s part of a glorious list of funny peeps this country has produced. I just found out Rich Little is Canadian. I don’t know why I didn’t know this. Comedians from Canada in America are ubiquitous.
I’ve never been more inspired and lit up than I was at this year’s fest. I’m still reeling. But here’s the dig. Canada hosts a world class comedy/arts festival that receives funding from the Ministry of Heritage with stand-up being the focus and yet there’s no arts funding for stand-up comedy. What? Can you repeat that Sandra? Sure I can. We host the biggest comedy/arts festival in the world but don’t fund stand-up comedy because it’s not considered art.
So okay. No arts funding. Check! No late night shows. Check. So we say let’s go to the United States. A tonne of opportunity there and they’re not that far away. Not so easy Battasleazy. First, we’re made to endure a very expensive and arduous VISA/Green Card process that costs upwards of $10,000 and that doesn’t even guarantee entry. It’s starting to feel like something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. I know this isn’t Denmark but I’d like to take my Shakespeare moment… I’ve never had one. And Shakespeare gets more funding from the Canadian government than our own comedic voices do. When Americans come to work in Canada they encounter no such barriers. Technically if we want to perform one night of comedy in America we need a $10,000 Visa to do so and we have a ‘free trade’ agreement with these people. More on that later.
See, the thing is there’s no star system in Canada. There’s one in Quebec but not in English Canada. So we feel compelled to go south. The truth is we don’t foster our talent the way the Americans do or the British. At both the HBO and Comedy Central panels at Just For Laughs, the burning question was: What’s your mandate? What do you look for? Answer: TALENT. I can’t remember who said it but talent is their ‘north star’. I love that. Their execs go to comedy clubs to scout talent and look for comics with a strong point of view to build shows around. That doesn’t happen here. The CRTC just lowered the amount of Canadian content requirements to 5%. So naturally we wanna go stateside to be seen and get work.
The Just for Laughs Festival is the greatest celebration of comedy on earth and I love that Canada hosts it. It brings in hundreds of comedians from around the world. The talent this year was breathtaking. What a beautiful tribe to be part of. Being invited to this festival is a huge deal for Canadian comics because there are very few opportunities here for that kind of exposure so it’s very exciting when we get this gig. But the truth is Canadian comedy took a back seat at the fest.
Not one Just for Laughs Awards was handed to a Canadian comic. Jim Carey is Canadian but he’s not a Canadian comic. The bar at the Hyatt featured mini pavilions for Netflix, Funny or Die and Comedy Central that advertised their upcoming line-ups and stand-up specials. Again, not a Canadian to be seen. Why is this? CBC has so much to be proud of this year with their comedy line-up but they had no such display. The Comedy Network advertised their line-up of mostly American shows and Bell hosted a panel with some Youtube stars they’ve taken under their umbrella. It’s the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church canonizing saints. We had nothing to do with your good deeds and miracles but we’ll bring you under our cannon to make us look holy. There’s a lot of buying of American content in Canada but not a lot of making. There’s something very sick in our collective cultural consciousness here that doesn’t have faith in our own stories or storytellers.
So here we are one year later. Mr. Trudeau has yet to respond to my letter. I’ve sent it to him several times. Tweeted at him. Called him. No dice. I get the picture bro, I’m not your main squeeze. You’re busy approving pipelines, renegotiating NAFTA, meeting popes… it’s a tight schej. I’m sure if my name was Kinder Morgan Sandra Battaglini we would’ve had steak tartare already.
So when I wasn’t getting anywhere with Heir Trudeau, I contacted Heritage Minister Melanie Jolie, my MP Julie Dabrusin (Toronto-Danforth) and the Canada Arts Council. Guess what, I had coffee with my MP and a couple of phone convos with the Canada Arts Council. Julie was cool. She let me know I was the first person from the stand-up community to ever approach her. I was pretty jazzed at first but then realized as comics we do a lot of complaining and not enough speaking up.
Julie wanted to learn more about the stand-up world because she had no awareness of us. I mean she knew we existed but that’s about it. She had some great funding ideas, ie. creative spaces grants that would help venues who support stand-up comedy to pay comics, advertise etc. The Comedy Bar, The Social Capital Theatre and The Corner Comedy Club immediately came to mind. I felt encouraged. I then had a phone conversation with a coordinator at the Canada Arts Council and he was pretty clear they fund art, not entertainment. So what do you consider entertainment I asked? He said sports and I thought I heard strip clubs but that could’ve been my inner monologue. I told him I’ve seen a lot of stuff funded by the CAC and wouldn’t consider it art. He burst out in an awkward laugh. He explained the Canada Arts Council funds comedy only if you define yourself as a theatre artist. Stand-up is the most immediate theatre there is bro. Punto e basta! (That’s Italian for period – the punctuatish not menstruaish)
In 2015 the Canada Arts Council reformulated how it funds art. It used to distribute $154 million in about 4,000 grants and payouts to artists each year through 147 different programs. This seems excessive. They thought so too. According to council director and CEO Simon Brault, for too long the federal agency reacted to any new issue/trend or artistic practice by creating a new discipline based funded program. How was stand-up comedy absent? It’s never been a trend. It’s as old as our consciousness. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from comics who were denied funding from the CAC. I applied several times and was never granted money. It pissed me off.
As of 2017, the Canada Arts Council has streamlined their arts funding and it looks promising for us. Since my discussions with them, they’ve opened a portfolio on stand-up comedy and are currently familiarizing themselves with it in Ottawa. Let me be clear though, stand-up comedy is yet to be defined as an art form by them but it is under consideration. Here’s what their new funding model looks like. http://canadacouncil.ca/funding
But let me get back to Mr. Primo Ministero, Justin Trudeau for a moment. What do I gotta do to get you to talk to me? Do I have to come down to Ottawa. Cause I’ll do it. Timing is of the essence especially because NAFTA is currently being renegotiated which is really the reason for my blog post today.
I recently learned that Washington controls Canadian oil. It’s outlined in Article 605 of the NAFTA Agreement. Something Brian Mulroney just handed over to the Americans back in 1993. I mean I guess I knew that intuitively but didn’t know it explicitly.
“For more than 20 years, Canadian politicians have largely managed to keep the focus on lumber and cows, distracting us from the truly outrageous aspects of NAFTA: the surrender of Canadian sovereignty in a couple of key areas. Now that Trump is forcing us to renegotiate NAFTA, there’s lots of talk here about how Canada must be tough, and even demand some changes we want.” (Nafta’s Dirty Little Secret: It Lets U.S. Control Canada’s Oil, Linda McQuaig, The Toronto Star)
Washington tried the same thing with Mexico and they shut it down.
“Article 605 was considered such an extreme infringement of national sovereignty that Mexico refused to accept it. Instead, Mexico demanded and was granted an exemption to that clause when it joined NAFTA in 1994.” (Nafta’s Dirty Little Secret…)
So why the hell did we just hand over our petrol like a bunch of pussies? Well we didn’t, Mulroney did and he did it without regard. A defining moment in our history and an erosion of our democracy.
This really characterizes our relationship with the United States. We just keep making more accommodations for them while they continue to impose restrictions on us. And we reward them with our motha’ flowin’ oil. Madonne! I’m losin’ it ova here!
Article 605 of NAFTA states:
(b) the Party [Canada] does not impose a higher price for exports of an energy or basic petrochemical good to that other Party [United States] than the price charged for such good when consumed domestically, by means of any measure such as licenses, fees, taxation and minimum price requirements.
In your face Canada!
When Brian Mulroney was negotiating NAFTA back in the 90s, I remember my father was not into it. He would say, ‘this free tray (he’s an abreever) is no free for us. It’s free for America but no Canada.’ And he was right. He knew the effects it would have on our economy because he worked in the mining industry. He experienced first hand the havoc the ‘free’ market wreaks in people’s everyday lives. I’m being so Marxist right now, I know, but it’s the only way I can explain it.
Marx would have been extremely opposed to ‘free tray’ deals because the further away the owners of the means of production are located, the more estranged and alienated the worker becomes to their livelihood and the citizen to their country. At times I feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness living in a nation that betrayed its citizens by giving so much power to banks, corporations and the biggest mafia of all time, Washington. This deal is so corrupt, that on top of everything I just said, it makes Canadians pay for loss of corporate profits due to stronger environmental regulations, indigenous rights, worker protections and consumer rights. Canada is the most-sued country in the developed world. Are Canadians just a bunch of whores? Maybe.
(Here’s a lovely painting of Karl Marx. Good chest on the man!)
Donald Trump has expressed he wants a better deal for Americans? How much of a better deal could he be looking for when they already have our oil? This is why Trudeau hasn’t made any serious commitments to the environment and why he keeps approving pipelines – the goons in Washington want it that way.
The current NAFTA negotiations are going so badly they’ve extended talks to 2018 largely due to outrageous U.S. demands and oil isn’t even on the table. Oil should always be on the table in case you wanna dip your bread in it. Canada’s Foreign Minister Cynthia Freeland said, “We have seen proposals that would turn back the clock on 23 years of predictability, openness, and collaboration. In some cases, these proposals run counter to World Trade Organization rules. This is troubling.”
So here’s my plea to Prime Minister Trudeau today. On behalf of stand-up comedians, please remove the unfair restrictions on us working in the United States and include us on the list of professions on the NAFTA job list: http://www.tnvisaexpert.com/overview/nafta-job-list/
If we keep allowing our precious commodities like oil and comedy to freely flow to the U.S. without demanding proper compensaish then we have no pride as a nation in what we produce. Let’s not make the same mistake with comedians as we are with oil. Comedians will outlive the fuel based economy. Let’s protect them.
There is absolutely nothing that justifies this incredibly unfair policy. If Americans claim that imposing restrictions on Canadians is necessary because we can take their jobs away, then the same is true in reverso. American comics come to Canada all the time and perform in our clubs and at our festivals. No problem. They don’t even need to produce so much as a letter at the border. Ridiculous right! And let me say it again they control our motha flowin oil. Enough!
This is the same for Canadian actors and musicians. When a Canadian band goes to the U.S., each member has to get a VISA. When American bands come to Canada, they need only one Visa for the entire band. Empire’s a bitch, eh. And Noam Chomsky agrees.
“Free trade agreements are not free at all. The trade system was reconstructed with a very explicit design of putting working people in competition with one another all over the world… [When] Alan Greenspan… testified to Congress, he explained his success in running the economy as based on what he called ‘greater worker insecurity’. Keep workers insecure they’re going to be under control. They are not going to ask for decent wages or decent working conditions, or the opportunity of free association – meaning to unionize. If you keep workers insecure they’re not going to ask for too much. They’ll just be delighted – they won’t even care if they have to have rotten jobs, and by some theory, that’s considered a healthy economy.” (In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky)
This sums up the stand-up world in Canada. There’s so much insecurity that comics oblige some of the national clubs when they dictate to us where we can and can not perform. Most of us don’t even make a living wage. When a new club opened in Toronto over a year ago, some comics starting using pseudonyms instead of their real names for advertising purposes so as not to get in trouble with the bigger clubs. I used to be known as Sandy Bertrand for a time. No more. I’m Sandra Battaglini and my name is the only thing I got in this business. This environment of fear suffocates the very art it purports to showcase. And because we don’t have easy access to the U.S. we appease these outdated ways of doing business. When I watch I’m Dying Up Here, I think to myself is Canada 1970s L.A. but without Carson?
The same is true for actors. ACTRA tells its members where they can and cannot work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to turn down a part in an indie web series that would’ve paid me $100 for a couple of hours because I’m an ACTRA member and it was a non-union production. How can ACTRA tell people not to accept work when they don’t have work to replace it? That is not a union. That $100 multiplied by all the times I’ve had to turn work down because I belong to a so-called union, would’ve amounted to several weeks of groceries and mortgage payments. Never mind the exposure that doing something like this does for an actor. Why do the gatekeepers in this country make it so hard for us to work? I don’t think any Canadian would stand for this. I actually called and emailed ACTRA asking them to stand with us on this issue and they never got back to me. I’m suspish!
Right now Canada is experiencing a comedy boom. We’re bursting at the seams despite our limitations. So much great content is being created online and on TV, ie. LetterKenny, Baroness Von Sketch, Terrific Women just to name a few. Every night thousands of Canadians leave their homes and their devices to watch live comedy and laugh off the hysteria of our times. We are the talent, the NORTH star. So let’s stand-up for our art and celebrate it to maximum capacity. Let’s gain the access we deserve, and the government support that’s due. Let’s take ownership and develop our north stars. Let’s create a structure to ensure Canadian comics can entertain Canadians with their art while living and working in Canada. Let’s ask our politicians to ensure greater ease for comics to tour outside of Canada so they can bring their perspectives to the world, and new perspectives of the world back to Canada. We live in a magnificent country and we can nurture and benefit from uniquely Canadian storytellers, instead of celebrating their achievements elsewhere.
This may seem trivial to people. Oh you just tell jokes, that’s not a job. It is! It’s our livelihood and a force in our economy. Never mind the force it’s been in the American economy. One of the most iconic comedy institutions, SNL, was created by a Canadian after all. Based on that alone America, don’t make it so hard for us. And Canada, the economic spin-off of comedy is huge, ie. transit, food, taxes. So many venues rely on comedy to keep their doors open. It’s a beautiful thing and what keeps our spirits buoyant.
Let’s consider for a moment the larger and more monumental economic benefit of producing content here in Canada with our own talent. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and other digital platforms are spending billions of dollars on content creation. It would be foolish for Canada not to pursue a piece of this pie domestically with our natural resources – comedians – instead of taking the less risky tactic of buying stuff for cheap from other countries. This is a serious lack of vision and faith and shall I say downright lazy. Funny people from Canada are a tried and true commodity. As slick as oil and less corrosive to the earth. If the CRTC and Canadian broadcasters can’t get their shit together when it comes to creating Canadian stories by Canadian storytellers (aside from the CBC) then shall I suggest throwing a couple of dollars to us on the front lines who do it every day. I am certain we would create content the likes of which no one could have ever imagined. SCTV and Kids and the Hall are proof positive of our legendary comedic talent.
This Visa issue facing the comedy community here has manufactured a separation between us and our peers in the U.S. and created the kind of competition Chomsky speaks of. We are one community. We create art by stringing together words in such a way that culminates in laughter. It releases so many endorphins, you could say it saves lives. It certainly saved mine.
So many of my peers have made the big move to the U.S. and are gloriously forging a formidable presence there. They’ve been doing that for decades. I just got my O1 Visa so that part really isn’t for me but my community and my country who I stand in solidarity with and who have afforded me the privilege to entertain them.
If Canadian stand-ups were allowed to perform in the U.S. with little or no restrictions, they wouldn’t have to completely up-root their lives. They could tour the U.S. while still living here, instead of leaving Canada a pro and having to start all over in the U.S. I’m not advocating not moving to the U.S., I’m just saying, it doesn’t need to be such a big deal.
So I was ready to publish what you just read and then I received a letter from Heritage Minister, Melanie Jolie, the day after returning from Just for Laughs. What timing! I’ve attached it below. While she did the government thing of explaining the wonderful things they do, she took the liberty of forwarding my letter to the Minister of International Trade, François-Phillipe Champagne and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. I’m blown away. Also, the Juno Awards has just announced it’s reinstating Comedy Album of the year. This is huge. I know it’s gonna take time but I feel like change is gonna come.