In Baie St-Paul, the Forum Jeunesse youth centre has hosted a youth circus program since 2008. Cirque du Monde is a humanitarian project created by Cirque du Soleil. The program has persisted despite restructuring—and has even expanded to youth in the entire Charlevoix region, thanks to the vision and leadership of Claudine Fortin. She has been running Forum Jeunesse for 22 years. Activities were condensed into one evening instead of two, and part of the budget was used to provide transportation for kids from other youth centres affiliated with the project, so they could come join the Baie St-Paul group..
This year, with the gangs from Les Éboulements and Notre-Dame-des-Monts combined with the ones from Charlevoix-Est (La Malbaie, Clermont, St-Siméon and Saint-Aimé des Lacs), the program brings together an average of twenty kids each week.
On Thursday nights, after the instructors take a half-hour to prepare, they get ready to greet the groups arriving one after another around 6:30. The kids are happy and excited to be starting activities again after their Christmas break. Éric Larochelle, also a singer-songwriter, has been the Forum Jeunesse cultural officer for nearly five years and is the social worker for tonight. Josiane Lamoureux and Jean-René Ouellet act as social circus instructors. Josiane began her circus career participating in a workshop like this one, then trained as an independent artist and finally as a Cirque du Monde instructor. She has been part of a number of social circus projects abroad (Brazil, Burkina Faso, Honduras, Haiti). Jean-René took a one-year training program in social circus at the National Circus School in Montreal.
The three instructors are backed by the managers of the participating youth centres. To properly understand the underlying philosophy of social circus, the youth centre managers completed 3 days of training given by the organization En Piste. This new outlook on intervention changes the approach to roles, to understanding youth living in unstable situations, and to mentoring youth in terms of ethics, safety and creativity.
In February, the program will also be open to kids aged 8–11 earlier in the afternoon. The older group will follow in the early evening. Since the instructors travel from Quebec City, it is important to make the most of them when they come. Since September, the group of participants has mostly been made up of kids aged 12–14, though technically, the program in open for ages 12–17. Ideally, the older kids help out the instructors and social workers, but some have lost interest in continuing on with a younger group.
The evening’s activities are structured. First is circle time. The kids sit in a ring with the instructors and are prompted to introduce themselves and tell about their favourite moment from the holidays. Another evening, they answer a different easy question. The idea here is to get conversation flowing, welcome new participants and establish communication and listening. After each child has had a chance to express themselves, it’s playtime.
Jean-René explains tonight’s game. Everyone springs into action to set up the equipment—get moving! Two rounds, everyone played, both teams won. The room is abuzz with energy.
After the game comes the warm-up. On mats laid out around the edges of the room, the kids fill up the space around the centre. Josiane leads this part, explaining how important it is to warm up well to prevent injuries. Then she also lays down the workshop rules, and explains that balls will be given out to rule-breakers. So, the idea here is to try not to get any balls!
Finally, the equipment comes out and everyone sets about their discipline of choice. No group exercise tonight—the energy is high, and the instructors have wisely chosen to let everybody pick their own activity. Within minutes, the mats are in place, the tightrope is hung in the middle of the room, aerial silks and a hoop are hooked up to hidden anchors in the ceiling, and diobolos and other juggling gear are taken out. In front of me are the tumblers: three remarkably flexible and agile girls (I later learn they do cheerleading at school) along with a few boys, doing and re-doing floor gymnastics routines with the help of Jean-René. A corridor is reserved for a big spool brought from the local cable TV company, so the kids can learn to keep their balance while walking gracefully on a round surface.
At year’s end, in the month of May, the group will give an end-of-session performance in front of around 50 spectators. It is not mandatory for the kids to participate, but they are encouraged to. “I didn’t think my child could do that,” is the phrase most commonly heard at the event. The kids worked very hard to attain that level. Hopefully, learning how to push themselves will lead to other successes for them in the future.
In addition, this year Baie St-Paul will play host to the provincial Cirque du Monde gathering. The groups from Quebec City, Montreal, the Attikamek Nation, Îles-de-la-Madeleine and Charlevoix will meet up for a weekend and stage a show together.
In the circus, there are also costumes, make-up, decorations, music … an opportunity to invite the youth who gravitate toward Cirque du Monde to contribute in their own way. Three older kids who seemed to have tried out all of the circus disciplines—and who are also musicians, created five pieces of music last year with Éric’s help. They played these as a soundtrack during the performance for parents. It was the kids’ first experience playing in front of an audience, but built a great synergy with their circus buddies. The youth centres therefore plan to further develop this area of circus-related arts.
Over time, each year, one witnesses things one might not have expected or, sometimes, hoped for. A child is having a hard time at school, and often gets kicked out of class. Their mother is upset. Yet at the circus workshops, everything is going great. The setting is different and so are the rules; and the child is experiencing success. This is the only place the mother comes to pick them up where she is not afraid to hear bad news. That child re-learns how to live among others and manage their anger, and feels that others have confidence in them.
Other kids have ADHD, some have developed an attachment disorder from living with multiple foster families, and other complex disorders put their success even more at risk. But at the circus workshops, they can channel their energy. They become familiar with the consistency of a routine that suits them, a stable group, and an ability to push themselves that they can go on to use elsewhere in their lives.
So yes—the circus can change lives. And in Baie St-Paul, they know.