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ByWard Market buskers now have to juggle extra cost of insurance

Buskers in the ByWard Market now have to pay hundreds of dollars for liability insurance to legally perform in the historic downtown Ottawa district. 

The changes, which also affect the smaller Parkdale Market west of the core, came into effect April 1.

"Buskers are the only individuals down here for commercial purposes who don't currently have general commercial liability insurance," said Jeff Darwin, executive director of Ottawa Markets.

Ottawa Markets executive director Jeff Darwin said five of the approximately 100 legal buskers in the ByWard Market have filed insurance with him, though he's heard from others who have it and just haven't filed it yet. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

He hasn't heard of any busking-related lawsuits in Ottawa, but they have happened in other cities, Darwin said.

"As soon as they put down their tip hat or jar to collect money, they're here for commercial purposes," he told Hallie Cotnam of CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"If someone trips over their microphone stand or their guitar case and lands flat on their face, they're going to be suing the city, Ottawa Markets, anybody they can find except the busker because they can't find them, they have no personal liability insurance."

Cuts into profit

Many of the more popular touring performers already have insurance, Darwin said, but he acknowledged it would be an additional cost for part-time performers.

That additional cost concerns buskers such as Joey Albert, whose main source of income has been entertaining as juggler and acrobat Rockabilly Joe for 12 years.

"I think it's acceptable for [bigger] shows but for the guy playing guitar on the street, I don't really know why they would need insurance," he said. "It definitely deters some buskers, which is unfortunate because you want variety in the Market."

Joey Albert has performed across Canada and the United States, along with Mexico and Australia — one of the only jurisdictions he's been to that requires liability insurance. (Joey Albert)

Though Darwin said insurance would cost about $200, Albert said his act, which features stunts and crowd participation, would cost about $500 to insure.

He's in the process of getting that insurance, along with insurance for himself if he gets injured during his act.

"I'm just going to have to cough up the money and get it," Albert said. "The only way it affects me is I have to make all that money [back] before I start making a profit."

Part-time barrier

Gabrielle Malis, a musician who occasionally performs in public, agreed that performers who draw big crowds with flashy acts likely won't be as affected as musicians playing on a street corner for tips.

"Excepting an extraordinary musical talent, those with ordinary talent and a passion to play for the public … are very disadvantaged by these fees," she wrote in an email. "In my experience as a musician-dancer-busker, this is a gruelling way to make a living."

The insurance requirement discourages part-time musicians from going to the Market, Malis wrote.

"Often, university students taking musical studies would consider honing their skills while making a bit of cash in the Market, but because they can only perform for a limited period, and not full-time, paying $400 plus [in fees] to do this would not make any sense," she wrote.

When asked about this criticism, Darwin said he values the vibrancy performers bring to the Market, but it's not fair for one group not to have insurance while everybody else does.

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