Canadian actors say they’re feeling the impacts of a 16-month dispute that’s prevented them from appearing in commercials from many of the country’s largest ad agencies.
“I’m now in a position where I’m very seriously at risk of losing my home,” said Kate Ziegler, a Toronto-based actor who has predominantly done commercial voice work.
“Like a lot of Canadians, my mortgage has skyrocketed. That, combined with that loss of stable income that I’ve had, has created a really challenging problem for me.”
Canada’s English-language acting union and the trade organization representing ad agencies have been unable to renegotiate a deal that’s set the rules for using actors in ads since the 1960s.
Though mediated negotiations and hearings at the Ontario Labour Relations board are ongoing, actors say they’ve felt financial and career impacts as work opportunities have dwindled. The actors note that commercial work is vital for those trying to make a living in the industry in Canada.
What is the dispute?
Companies don’t typically create ads for their own products. A brand looking to advertise a product or service works with an agency, which then produces the ads. For example, the agency Cossette typically creates ads for McDonald’s Canada, among other clients.
The bulk of ad agencies in Canada are represented by the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA). English language actors in Canada are represented by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).
Going back to the 1960s, ACTRA and the ICA have worked together under a set of terms outlined in a National Commercial Agreement (NCA). Those terms are negotiated every few years. The agreement expired in April 2022 and the two parties have not yet reached a new deal.
The ICA says on its website that the dispute originates from a clause inserted in the NCA in 2008, designed to allow U.S. agencies to use unionized Canadian actors when making foreign commercials in Canada. Foreign companies would use a third-party company to engage union members on their behalf.
The ICA says that since this clause was introduced, new Canadian agencies that aren’t members of the ICA have been able to use both non-union and union talent, accessing the latter via third-party companies without having to sign the agreement.
In May 2022, an ACTRA memo responded to those claims, saying the union made proposals to address the issue of third parties being used by agencies, noting there were only a few doing so. Actra says the ICA did not respond to those proposals and instead left the bargaining table.
ACTRA has accused the ICA of bargaining in bad faith, filing a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The ICA says the NCA is a commercial contract, not a collective agreement. Mediated negotiations continue, while OLRB hearings on the matter are scheduled into 2024.
Both ACTRA president Eleanor Noble and ICA president and CEO Scott Knox declined to comment on ongoing negotiations, citing the need for confidentiality.
‘This feels absolutely devastating’
Ziegler, the voice-over actor, says to make ends meet she’s started working as a waitress, and is looking at becoming certified as an intimacy co-ordinator for film and television, but the adjustment has been difficult.
“To walk out and try to find a comparable income elsewhere, it’s been incredibly challenging,” she said. “I’m an actor, I’m an artist, I don’t have a lot of job experience outside of what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years.”
“It’s been pretty devastating, not just in terms of a livelihood missing, but a career,” said Dina Pino, who regularly worked in commercials in Toronto before April 2022, but hasn’t booked any since the deal expired.
“We’re not hobbyists, we’re professionals. We’ve dedicated our careers to it.”
Elana Dunkelman says in 2021 she had 40 callbacks for commercial work. This year, she says she’s had three.
“I’ve been a professional actor for the last 20 years. I’ve been an ACTRA member since 2003,” said the Toronto actor. “I invest a lot of time and energy into being good at what I do, and this feels absolutely devastating to me.”
Commercial work valuable, actors say
Actor Fiona Highet started out working in theatre, and used commercial work to support herself.
“Doing voice-over work meant that I was able to work for the very low wages that independent theatre actors make in the country, which kept me in the business,” she said.
Commercials represent an important part of the industry, Highet says, and are valuable to actors for reasons beyond income.
“I would say the ladder of success in our business is not financial, but actually visibility,” said the actor, who is also based in Toronto. “Being on camera in a commercial is extremely valuable to you as an actor.”
Highet says she made tens of thousands less in 2022 than the year before, and worries about the future of the industry.
“Once that work is gone, it doesn’t feel likely to come back.”
Impacts on screen
Not all agencies in all parts of the country are impacted by the dispute.
A2C, the association representing advertising agencies in Quebec, has signed on to the NCA, meaning there are no issues using union performers in the province.
Some independent agencies are also working with union talent, such as Rethink, which handles advertising for A&W, Ikea and Molson, among other brands.
Josh Kolm, editor at the Canadian advertising and marketing trade publication Strategy, says agencies involved in the dispute might still be producing ads using non-union actors, or building them around consumer testimonials, user-generated content, or animation that doesn’t involve voice-over.
In April, Cossette, which was among the agencies involved in the dispute, signed a letter of continuance with ACTRA through the end of this year.
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