Arctic Winter Games call for unpaid northern performers is 'old school thinking,' say annoyed artists

Artists in the Northwest Territories are annoyed after coordinators with the Arctic Winter Games posted a call for northern performers and musicians to perform for free at the north’s largest and oldest sports competition in March.

'It's just unfortunate that no money was put aside for something like this,' says artist Jesse Wheeler

Unlike opening ceremony performers seen here in 2016, Northern musicians, dancers and storytellers who perform during the games are recruited as unpaid volunteers, according to the AWG Host Society. (Vagn Hansen/AWG 2016)

Artists in the Northwest Territories are annoyed after Arctic Winter Games (AWG) organizers posted a call for northern performers and musicians to perform for free at the north's largest and oldest sports competition in March.

The online posting asks for singers, musicians, instrumental performers and storytellers to play for large or small crowds for up to 40 minutes at a time, as "an excellent opportunity to showcase your talents!"

The post states that "performers will not be paid for their services," and that the committee is looking for performers who do not require accommodations or travel reimbursement. The games are held in Fort Smith and Hay River, N.W.T., this year.


Jesse Wheeler, an actor from Yellowknife, reacted to the posting by taking to Facebook. He says he's speaking out in solidarity for fellow northern artists.

"When a major event, one of the biggest events in the North, shows they're not willing to allocate funds for cultural enhancement, as they are calling it, it's discouraging," said Wheeler.

"Especially as an artist in the North where there is not a lot of professional work."

Wheeler's post garnered attention from several artists agreeing with him.

"Asking for 'volunteered' time is discriminating against artists who are struggling to make ends meet," says one commenter.

"This is really insulting and pretty embarrassing," writes another. "Asking artists to give their time for free to a sporting event is minimizing the work they do everyday."

Exposure is not payment, says artist

Wheeler says exposure rarely leads to more work for artists.

"So that's the backlash you are seeing," he said. "It's really old school thinking that artists should pay their dues and therefore exposure should be enough for them to want to do their work for an event like AWG."

Jamie Chabun, a professional musician in Fort Smith, N.W.T., says he expected more from the Arctic Winter Games.

"It's a total missed opportunity," said Chabun, who added that he won't be applying.

"It brings up a lot of sore spots," said Chabun. "Things in the North are in their infancy… our valuation of musical culture is just one of those things."

We are taking it really seriously. Certainly the intention was not to disrespect any of the performers.- Todd Shafer, AWG general manager

Wheeler says he'd like to see organizers reword the posting, as well as offer some sort of compensation, or even an honorarium, for northern performers.

But Wheeler says even if the posting was worded differently — for example, as a "volunteer opportunity for amateurs" — he's still disappointed in the games' organizers.

"It's just unfortunate that no money was put aside for something like this."

AWG says it'll review posting

Arctic Winter Games' general manager says the posting was aimed at amateur performers, and it wasn't targeting professional musicians.

"[It's] an opportunity for someone in an amateur or developmental stage to showcase their talents," said Todd Shafer.

Shafer said the posting wasn't new. It was taken from previous years, and said it was "common practice" for AWG to put a call out like this.

But because of the backlash, Shafer said the AWG board and international committee will do an internal review, and provide an update soon.

"We are taking it really seriously," said Shafer. "Certainly the intention was not to disrespect any of the performers."

The Arctic Winter Games relies heavily on volunteer support, and has for several years. This year, organizers are looking for 1,500 volunteers, having found 1,000 volunteers by December.

With files from Kirsten Murphy


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