Access to Justice for All? Artists and Creatives have been overlooked Part I

Written by Emily Palmer

This is a 2 part series about improving access to justice for artists, creatives, and arts and cultural organizations who do not have a lawyer or cannot afford legal services in Manitoba.

 In Part 1 we look at the problem. In Part 2 we look at practical solutions.


We have all heard the phrase “everyone deserves the right to a fair trial”. But can everyone access the fairness they so rightly deserve?

Retaining a lawyer is expensive, emotionally taxing, and a daunting process. The law impacts people in different ways, depending on a variety of competing circumstances. So, it comes as no surprise that most people find it difficult to navigate the complex world of the Canadian legal system. 

When reflecting on the legal gaps in our communities, specific areas like family law, criminal law, and cases with self-represented litigants are most often the centre of discussion. Individuals who experience issues in these areas deserve equal access to justice, and often struggle to utilize or gain access to legal support.

To add to the list of underserved groups in need of legal resources are arts and culture communities in Manitoba. This is true for other parts of Canada as well.

These groups often go overlooked and ignored in the realm of legal support. This includes everyone from photographers and dancers to sculptors, videographers, actors, musicians, writers, and creative organizations. In short, generally any artist, maker, or creative.

Part of the problem is that there are only a small number of lawyers that focus on the complex and unique world of artists, creatives, arts and culture. While members of the private bar have been providing both pro bono and paid services to the arts community, there are still very significant unmet and underserved needs within the Arts and Culture sector. This is especially so amongst new and emerging artists, start-up organizations, and in rural and remote and Northern areas.

We have all heard the phrase “struggling artist”. The 2020 Needs Assessment Report conducted by the National Network of Legal Clinics for the Arts, highlights gaps in legal needs, legal literacy, education, and protections that are taking dramatic tolls on a sector whose earnings were already near poverty levels prior to the pandemic. This Report, sponsored by the Canadian Council for the Arts and Heritage Canada, was the first national legal needs assessment of the arts and culture sector.

According to the 2020 Needs Assessment Report, 94% of artists felt that they were facing specific legal needs, 90% of artists and arts organizations found access to legal resources and support for artists to be absent or insufficient, and 83% of arts organizations found that they did not have sufficient access to legal resources to serve their own affiliates.

The report also indicated that artists highly ranked specific legal needs for their creative products, such as seeking information on intellectual property, contracts, digital privacy, and social media. This includes a need for a basic understanding of how to protect works through the use of copyright and trademarks, how to enforce rights against infringement, and how to commercialize creative products.

Not only does the need for legal resources exist at a national level, but the gap also exists within many parts of the province, including in Northern Manitoba.

In the 2022 survey “Artists and Arts Organizations in Northern Manitoba: A Baseline Study” conducted by ImagiNorthern, 282 artists were identified across Northern Manitoba and across various arts and creative disciplines. A total of 27 arts organizations with 123 employees were devoted to a form of artistic work. 75% of this population was found to be Indigenous.

The study also found that relatively few artists and makers earn an income from their work. Most artists and creatives see their work in the form of a hobby (66%) while only a small amount create works as a business.

Recently, a focus on providing support to arts and culture communities has been initiated by groups eager to emphasize and connect hubs of creatives in Northern Manitoba and provide common supports to creatives in northern communities.

In December 2020, the Flin Flon Arts Council started the “Uptown Emporium” to facilitate the expansion of opportunities for Northern makers and to showcase the talent in the arts and culture sectors in local and international markets. This was done by using the broad reach of the internet to improve the economic development in Northern Manitoba.

The project began by virtually connecting local artists and eventually transformed into what is now an e-commerce site, a physical storefront, photography centre, and a drop-shipping warehouse, known as the Uptown Emporium model.

Together, the Uptown Emporium and the ImagiNorthern strategy work to create a sustainable model that celebrates and supports the arts, culture, tourism, and economic development in Northern Manitoba communities.

In 2022, The Flin Flon Arts Council was awarded a grant of $250,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts Strategic Innovation Fund to expand the support programs for artists throughout Northern Manitoba.

This is one of the many ways that organizations have developed to support artists and arts and culture communities and to showcase the talent that lives within the Province.

The Problem is clear: the Legal needs of many in the Arts and Culture sector are underserved and been overlooked in access to justice discussions.

 The 2nd Part of this series will examine what may be a practical solution to improving access to justice to the arts and culture communities, through providing pro bono legal services to artists, creatives, arts and cultural organizations that do not have a lawyer and cannot afford legal services.