THE WORLD NEEDS MORE RED NOSES

Cana­dian clown is on a global hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion to ease suf­fer­ing with smiles,

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - ALLAN WOODS QUEBEC BUREAU

MON­TREAL— Af­ter years work­ing birth­day par­ties, pri­vate func­tions and pub­lic fes­ti­vals, of mak­ing peo­ple laugh for profit as Ya­hou the clown, Guil­laume Vermette de­cided to fol­low his dream.

The 29-year-old from Trois-Rivières, Que., sold his en­ter­tain­ment com­pany two years ago, launched a fundrais­ing cam­paign, filled a back­pack and dove into a new life marked by over­whelm­ing mis­ery, suf­fer­ing, vi­o­lence and des­per­a­tion.

Vermette, a full-time hu­man­i­tar­ian clown, has never felt so en­riched. He has never felt so en­raged, ei­ther.

His shows are for street kids in Haiti and Burk­ina Faso, Syr­ian refugees in Greece, Burmese refugees in Thai­land and Rus­sian or­phans liv­ing in ram­shackle con­di­tions.

“Yes, it’s rough some­times,” he ad­mit­ted in a re­cent in­ter­view. “If you brought me a recipe to save the world I’d drop my clown nose and do it.”

But the world ric­o­chets from the ru­ins of Syria and Iraq, to the Rohingyas flee­ing a cam­paign of eth­nic cleans­ing in Burma, to the height­ened nu­clear threat from North Korea. And Vermette’s red plas­tic nose, pow­der blue suit, red sus­penders and, some­times, bal­le­rina’s pink tutu are never in the closet for long.

In con­ver­sa­tion he rants against in­jus­tice, ex­ploita­tion, prej­u­dice and in­tol­er­ance. He says that what he has seen in the last year or so con­vinces him that the world is be­com­ing an uglier place. Then he bursts out in an un­bri­dled laugh.

“You have to ac­cept that you can’t change the world. You have to ac­cept that the world is a hor­ri­ble place,” he said. “To em­body change is the best thing you can do — and to be pos­i­tive. But to be hon­est, it’s get­ting harder and harder. I thought it would get eas­ier, but it’s not.”

The first time he put on a cos­tume was 12 years ago while work­ing as a camp coun­sel­lor in the Inuit vil­lage of Sal­luit in north­ern Quebec.

He was a 17-year-old white kid work­ing with Inuit youth not much younger than he was but who were al­ready fac­ing se­ri­ous per­sonal, so­cial and sub­stance-abuse is­sues. One day, Vermette went into the camp’s cos­tume closet on his break, dressed up and started walk­ing through the streets, mar­veling at the re­ac­tion.

“It was fun, but I felt there was some­thing more — a hu­man con­tact,” he said. “It al­lows you to re­al­ize that we are all the same. We laugh at the same things. We are touched by the same things.”

An idea was born. He took clown cour­ses, cre­ated his own en­ter­tain­ment com­pany at the age of 19 and en­rolled in univer­sity, study­ing psy­chol­ogy. It grew to the point where he had 30 per­form­ers work­ing for him and no time for his stud­ies.

Some prof­its from Ya­hou Pro­duc­tions went to pay for hu­man­i­tar­ian work, but he was frus­trated by bu­reau­cracy try­ing to get into hos­pi­tals and or­phan­ages, where his tricks and gags might brighten some­one’s day.

In 2011, a friend slipped Vermette a piece of pa­per with a tele­phone num­ber and the name of Patch Adams, the Amer­i­can doc­tor and ac­tivist clown por­trayed by Robin Wil­liams in the 1998 movie. It took him two weeks to work up his courage.

“I called and in­tro­duced my­self as Guil­laume the clown from Trois-Rivières in very bad English at the time. He lis­tened to me and, at the end, asked me to come with him to Rus­sia with about 40 other clowns to tour the or­phan­ages,” Vermette said.

In the years since, Vermette has been to Rus­sia 17 times work­ing with an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Maria’s Chil­dren, that vis­its or­phan­ages and hos­pi­tals and helps the sur­vivors of the 2004 Bes­lan school mas­sacre where 330 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 180 chil­dren, were killed by Chechen ter­ror­ists af­ter a three-day hostage sit­u­a­tion.

One of the kids, Rus­lan, lost his fa­ther and sis­ter in the Bes­lan at­tack. Rus­lan’s only sur­viv­ing rel­a­tive, his mother, has never re­ally re­cov­ered from the trauma, Vermette said.

“I don’t do shows for him be­cause it doesn’t in­ter­est him. He needs a pres­ence. He needs a mother and a brother and that’s what I give him as best as I can.”

Patch Adams, per­haps the world’s most fa­mous hu­man­i­tar­ian clown, is no longer just an in­spi­ra­tion for Vermette. He is a friend.

“I think the strong­est thing that Guil­laume brings is that he re­ally has a deeply lov­ing heart for all peo­ple,” Adams said in a phone in­ter­view.

He’s also be­come well re­spected in the com­mu­nity of itin­er­ant per­form­ers who cross paths in far-flung refugee camps or come to­gether for hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sions.

“A clown like Guil­laume could be mak­ing a re­ally de­cent wage. Cir­cus is back in a big way. With his skills and ex­pe­ri­ence, he could be ab­so­lutely pack­ing away the money, but we don’t miss it so it’s not a sac­ri­fice,” said Ash Per­rin, founder of The Fly­ing Seagull Project, a troupe that works with refugees in Europe.

Per­rin and Vermette first worked to­gether in 2016 in north­ern Greece, where 14,000 refugees stayed in a makeshift camp, hop­ing to make asy­lum claims in Europe. Their com­mon work ethic and con­cern for the chil­dren united them while per­form­ing up to eight shows a day in hot, dif­fi­cult con­di­tions.

“(Chil­dren) pick up on the at­mo­sphere of the par­ents,” Per­rin said. “Par­ents are los­ing hope af­ter they’ve been there a while. Hope is a thin re­source in the camp.” One mo­ment from that trip is etched in Vermette’s mem­ory. While he was per­form­ing, sur­rounded by kids, a fight broke out and gun­shots pierced the air. Ev­ery­one scram­bled to safety, ex­cept Vermette, who couldn’t hear any­thing over the sounds of the chil­dren laugh­ing.

For that brief mo­ment, he had re­moved his au­di­ence from their hos­tile and mis­er­able re­al­ity and trans­ported them to a place of hap­pi­ness. And he had done his job.

“If you brought me a recipe to save the world, I’d drop my clown nose and do it.” GUIL­LAUME VERMETTE

COURTESY OF GUIL­LAUME VERMETTE

Guil­laume Vermette, a hu­man­i­tar­ian clown, found his gift for mirth 12 years ago work­ing with Inuit youth.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.