Bring Back Performing Arts to the Northwest Territories!

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My name is Patrick Jacobson and I’m a Yellowknife-based singer/songwriter/performer. Like so many others, I have seen my profession put on indefinite hiatus since last March. In addition to being a performer, I also own a business called YK Rocks Productions. Its sole purpose is to present live music events. Obviously, it too has been closed for a year.

I understand that these are unprecedented times and that we have to be very cautious in endeavours that bring people together. There truly is nothing I want more than to bring a swift, successful resolution to this awful plague that we have had to adapt our lives to. However, as we all attempt to find new ways to adapt and proceed in safe, healthy, new directions, there are also safe solutions for the live performance industry that have been completely overlooked or ignored in the Northwest Territories. Every industry has had challenges and obstacles to overcome in order to return to business, and yet everything from restaurants, bars, salons, stores, coffee shops, and even strip clubs have found ways to return to operational status. All I’m looking for is the same opportunity to do this with the performing arts industry so that we can all finally return to work.

When I reached out to the Chief Public Health Officer, Kami Kandola, I received a response from the Chief Environmental Health Officer, Peter Workman. He reiterated what we all already know - that at this stage of recovery (Phase 2), live music with singing or “air expulsion” instruments is still prohibited. He suggested that event proposals are accepted and I can request an exception to put on an event. The problem with this is that not all performing arts are “event based.” Many of us worked weekly, or even nightly, performances as careers or supplemental income. He also commented that some live music events have been linked to Covid-19 cases or even outbreaks in Canada and worldwide. To me, this is irrelevant because the same thing can be said of grocery stores or family dinners or even hospitals. These outbreaks are not due to live music being dangerous, but rather due to the lack of safety protocols in place prior to these live music events occurring. We can do better. 

Peter’s email detailed several safety protocols that need to be in place prior to applying to present a live music event. There is no reason these protocols cannot be implemented as standards and followed for all live music nights and enforced across the territory. Allow me to address them one by one:

  • A short duration of performance (generally less than 30 minutes): No problem. Most live performances are divided into multiple sets of approximately 45 minutes. They can be shrunk down to 30 minute sets with equal length breaks between sets if necessary. 
  • Increased distance between performers and the audience (more than 3 m): Although difficult to achieve in smaller rooms such as coffee shops or small pubs, this can be easily achieved in larger venues - especially those with stages. It can be enforced with barricades or sectioned off areas.
  • Increased ventilation (outdoors, big spaces, with good air flow and filtration: Outdoor venues are not possible in winter, but as suggested in the previous bullet point, larger indoor venues can be utilized. Perhaps a reasonable “minimum square footage” restriction could be implemented until “Phase 3” begins or until restrictions are lifted altogether.
  • Screening of participants (both performers and audience): Temporary screening stations could easily be utilized at all live performances where attendees would be asked a number of standardized screening questions prior to being granted entry. Temperatures could even be taken with a thermometer gun if necessary.
  • Tracked and traceable participants: During screening, all patrons names and contact information can be recorded for contact tracing purposes.
  • Mask use by performers and audience: Although mask use by singers or musicians playing wind instruments is not possible, there are plexiglass shields available that attach onto microphone stands that protect audiences from projected breath or spittle. These would actually provide greater protection than a mask because they are solid barriers instead of cloth ones. In some venues, audience members may be eating and/or drinking. However, it can be enforced that audience members must don a mask if they choose to sing along with the performance.
  • Use of barriers: As mentioned above - stage size, barricades, plexiglass shields, and audience use of masks all provide safety barriers to protect against the spread of Covid-19. 

This addresses each and every concern posed by the Chief Environmental Health Officer and the office of the Chief Public Health Officer. Why not instate these safety protocols and allow all people affected by the performing arts industry shutdown to return to work? It should not be necessary to apply for an event permit every time a performer walks on stage. With these safety protocols being enforced, it should be possible for many, if not all, performing artists to return to work.

For those of us who work in this industry, this is not just entertainment. We have spent our entire lives learning our instruments, writing our songs, practicing our performances and honing our craft. Many of us went to college or university with aspirations of having lifelong careers in music. It’s simply not sustainable or acceptable to be told there is no plan in place to bring back our profession at this time. This is our life. This is our purpose. It is our passion. It is our reason to live. It’s who we are. That’s not a dramatic way of viewing this. It is a fact.

Music is a healing, cathartic, positive art form and I truly believe we all need it right now. All I’m asking is that our voices be heard and a dialogue be opened for creating safe protocols to reinstate the performing arts in the Northwest Territories. We have been so very, very patient. We just really need our sense of purpose back.

For me personally, this is about something far more dear than work or money. The performing arts are part of our culture. Our heritage. Whether it's Dene drumming and singing, rock & roll, katajjaq, musical theatre, jazz, orchestral music, choral music, or something else entirely, the performing arts are a very important part of our identity. It is our voice. It's how we share hope. It's how we grieve. It is how we celebrate. It is how we connect. Music is commonly referred to as the only "international language." How tragic that it should be silenced in the time we need it the most. There are safe ways to bring back performance art. Let's have that discussion. It's time. Give us our voices back.

I am asking all of you to add your voice to this cause. If you value the performing arts in your community, now is the time to make your voice heard. Please, sign this petition and help us put forward the motion to affect change and bring back the performing arts to the Northwest Territories. Share it on your wall or your story. Tweet about it. Message your friends and get them involved. It's much easier to hear hundreds or even thousands of voices than one, single voice. Together, we can achieve so much more. After all, we're all in this together... right?