Comedian Mike Ward ordered to pay punitive damages to butt of jokes
Jérémy Gabriel said a Human Rights Tribunal decision to fine Mike Ward $42,000 is a relief but he's disappointed the comedian has promised to keep using jokes about him and his disability.
"I'm going to live my life the way I expected to live it," he said. "I won't change anything, I will continue, I will pursue my career, I will pursue my dreams and I will continue to say there is a place for people like me to live their dreams without being persecuted by anyone because of a difference."
Ward has been ordered to pay $35,000 to Gabriel and another $7,000 to his mother Sylvie Gabriel in moral and punitive damages.
The Human Rights Tribunal ruled Wednesday that the comedian violated Gabriel’s rights by making discriminatory remarks based on his disability during a show he presented 230 times from 2010 to 2013.
Gabriel, who suffers from Treacher Collins Syndrome, was known among other things for singing in from of the pope and Celine Dion. His mother said the past few years have been a burden on her son, at one point even driving him to suicidal thoughts. Gabriel said the reasons Ward's jokes were offensive are self-evident.
"I would say, everything about his jokes was discriminatory," he said. "I don't think I have to give examples, you just have to watch the sketch to understand that."
In its 33-page decision, the tribunal agreed with Gabriel and his parents as well as the Human Rights and Youth Rights Commissions that Ward infringed upon the boy’s right to have his disability, honour and reputation safeguarded without discrimination.
The tribunal determined Ward did not respect Articles 4 and 10 of Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Ward based his defence on freedom of expression and the ‘clear difference between harassment against a person and an artistic work produced before a willing audience.’ Those arguments were dismissed by Scott Hughes; the judge said the case put two fundamental rights against each other: freedom of expression and the right to be protected against discriminatory remarks.
"Other comedians and especially Mike Ward do not understand that it's a false debate on the freedom of expression because there is no debate on freedom of expression," said Gabriel. "There was a lack of judgment in his jokes and I don't think they have to worry about the future of the freedom of expression."Gabriel's lawyer Marie Dominique said the ruling was clear and will not put a damper on free speech.
"These criteria already existed and the judge repeated them in his decision," she said. "It's a very, very restrictive type of expression that will not be allowed. It has never been allowed before, it's just the first time a decision has put it this way, clearly. It's not something new."
The court concluded in that case, that the second law must prevail.
While Ward has vowed to appeal the decision, he must first obtain permission to do so.
He refused to comment, he took to social media to promise to fight the ruling and to praise Just For Laughs for their support. Ward is currently appearing in the annual festival's The Nasty Show.
Even Rocky lost the first one, we're gonna appeal.— Mike Ward (@MikeWardca) July 21, 2016
JFL Chief Operating Officer Bruce Hill said the ruling could infringe on artists' ability to express themselves.
"We want to book the premium comedians of the world, that make good judgments and do relevant material," he said. "We want them to take chances. Maybe they're going to cross a line, but if they don't cross a line from time to time, what are we turning into?"
Ward has also garnered support from his fellow comedians, including Montreal's Sugar Sammy and Nasty Show regular Bobby Slayton.
"It's really ridiculous, with all the things happening in the world, you're going after a comic for something that might be a bit tasteless, might be a little out of line, but that's what comedy is," said Slayton.
- With files from The Canadian Press