It’s a common Yukon experience. You’re at the board meeting, looking around the table. There’s a vacancy in a leadership position. “I don’t know enough,” you think. But as you look around, well, you can’t ask the new board members to do it …

This happened to Whitehorse photographer Mario Villeneuve this past June. Villeneuve sits on the board of CARFAC National, Canadian Artists Representation/Le front des artistes canadiens, the voice of Canadian artists at the national policy level.

“I called Heather (LeDuc) the night before, said ‘I think they’re trying to get me to be the VP’. She just laughed. She knew it was a done deal. I wouldn’t be able to say no.”

A change in CARFAC’s legislation in June of 2007 allowed Villeneuve to join the board of the 40-year-old artists’ organization. Before, each provincial or territorial affiliate sent a representative to the national board.

There is no chapter in Alberta or the three territories, so artists in those regions remained unrepresented.

Now, members can be appointed to the board based on their skills or region even if there is no affiliate there.

In fact, there are now two Yukoners on the CARFAC national board. Mixed media artist Marie-Hélène Comeau has also joined. No other province or territory has two members on the board.

The joke is that Yukoners are taking over.

The Yukon is the poster child for CARFAC “for good reason,” says Villeneuve. We have the highest per capita investment in the arts by government in Canada.

CARFAC may be 40 years old this year, but CARFAC’s presence in the territory has a more recent history, although the artist fees paid by the Odd Gallery in Dawson and the Yukon Arts Centre Public Gallery reflect the fee structure and copyright laws set in place by the organization.

In 2005, Saskatchewan photographer Patrick Close visited the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival in Dawson. He introduced himself and CARFAC in a presentation to artists during that festival. He was also scouting for someone to do groundwork for the organization here.

Close found his ground worker in Yukon painter Philomena Carroll. She worked on a contract for the organization for six months. She began the process of getting CARFAC workshops to the Yukon. This past spring, Bill Horn from CARFAC BC gave workshops at Arts Underground, funded by CARFAC National.

At the end of her tenure, the Yukon had the highest per capita membership in Canada. That earned a standing ovation at the CARFAC AGM.

CARFAC hosts two national meetings a year, travelling from province to province to visit all its provincial affiliates. Then members can voice their issues at the AGM in their area. They can do this all year long, but presenting the situation in its context can be useful for other members.

The organization’s national executive director is paid, but the rest are not. Small affiliates just run on volunteers. The organization’s motto is “artists working for artists.”

Each affiliate decides where to put its scanty dollars. For example, CARFAC BC doesn’t have a physical office.

Villeneuve takes pride in “how much we can do with such a small budget.”

When he was first approached about joining the CARFAC board, his biggest concern was the cost to fly him from the Yukon to meetings. The board felt, however, the “need to hear what Yukon artists have to say.”

Villeneuve brings the Northern perspective. He wants to educate the South about what’s going on up here, bringing an awareness of the differences between the three territories.

As a francophone outside of Québec, he is also aware of issues of language and representation for these groups. The organization is now “working hard to get material translated into both French and English.” In Nunavut, they’re working on getting material translated into Inuktitut.

Villeneuve sees artists as professional cultural workers and works to see them treated the same way as any profession.

“Your average artist is very educated, but still averages $14,000 a year in Canada. It’s even worse if you’re a woman, if you’re First Nations. You work maybe 25 years in your field, you’re a specialist, bookkeeper, agent … how many professions do you know that are that skilled that can’t make a living?”

As VP, Villeneuve also chairs CARCC – the Canadian Artists Representation Copyright Collective. Artists can sign over their copyright to this organization which will then act as an agent, negotiating contracts with galleries and other groups using the artists’ work.

The Yukon is a good example of where you might need this. Say you have a show at the Yukon Arts Centre and you’re friends with the curator. Negotiating a business deal in this situation can be touchy. Instead of creating a rift between friends, you can have a person from CARCC negotiate for you.

Also, CARCC artists can reclaim their copyright at any time.

Villeneuve also gave a workshop at the recent Yukon First Nations Arts Festival, introducing copyright law for artists and negotiating licenses for their work.

Villeneuve has overcome his initial fears. “I’m really pleased,” he says. He feels he can do important things on the board.

For him, “art is not about making stuff, it’s about connecting with other people.” He describes getting involved at the national policy level to make changes to how things are written in law that effect artists as “fun.”

The position also gives him a national perspective for his own work.

And with the new board structure, you volunteer for a year or two, bring your experience and knowledge to the group, and then appoint somebody else.