The Supreme Court of Canada will render its decision today in the case of Mike Ward, the Quebec comedian convicted of discrimination under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights for making fun of a disabled child singer during years in his comedy shows.
In 2016, Ward was ordered to pay $ 35,000 in moral and punitive damages for comments he made about Jeremy Gabriel, a young man with Treacher Collins syndrome, a congenital disease characterized by abnormalities of the skull and face.
The decision will be important because it will have to strike a balance between a person’s right to live with dignity and the right to freedom of expression.
Gabriel rose to fame after singing for well-known public figures such as Celine Dion and was even flown to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict in 2006.
In 2012, when Gabriel was 15 and still a high school student in Quebec, his family filed a complaint against Ward with the Quebec Commission for Human Rights and Youth Rights, which dismissed the case to a human rights tribunal.
The family told court that Ward, who has been a Quebec comedian since 1993, violated Gabriel’s dignity, honor and reputation by making a series of humiliating jokes about him.
From September 2010 to March 2013, Ward presented a live show called “Mike Ward s’eXpose” in which he ridiculed the so-called “sacred cows” – people, according to Ward, are generally not laughed at because they are rich, influential or weak.
According to the Human Rights Tribunal ruling, Ward described Gabriel in his live shows as “little Jeremy” and “the kid with the subwoofer on his head”.
Making fun of Gabriel’s mother
Ward told his audience that people who don’t like Gabriel’s voice should give him a break because “he’s dying, let him live his dream.” He also joked that he wanted to drown him five years later because “he’s still not dead!”
The court ruling also said that in three years the live show has been performed 230 times and has sold around 135,000 tickets.
Ward has also made an online video series featuring Gabriel, describing him as the “ugly child singer,” making fun of him because his mouth doesn’t close completely – a symptom of his condition – and implying that his mother used his money to buy luxury goods. .
Ward said he made a distinction between the persecution of an individual and an artwork produced for a consenting audience, and that he contributed to fundraisers that help people with disabilities.
Since his premature birth in 1996, Gabriel has undergone 23 operations and has been hospitalized numerous times for complications related to his condition.
Treacher Collins syndrome left Gabriel with severe deafness that was reversed at the age of six when he had a bone-anchored hearing aid implanted. The device restored up to 90 percent of his hearing, allowing him to become a singer.
“It made me think that my life is worth less than that of another”
Representatives for Gabriel told the court he first learned that Ward was laughing at him in 2010, while he was still in high school. The court heard that he felt “disgusted” and “hurt” because people made fun of his physical appearance.
The court heard that Gabriel had grown discouraged, considered suicide, and sought psychiatric help to deal with the ridicule he had suffered from other students.
“I was 12 or 13 when I saw these videos,” Gabriel told the court. “I did not have the maturity to be strong in the face of it – I lost confidence and hope. It made me think that my life is worth less than another because I am disabled.”
The court ruled in Gabriel’s favor in 2016, awarding him $ 25,000 for moral damages and an additional $ 10,000 for punitive damages. Gabriel’s mother was awarded $ 5,000 for moral damages and $ 2,000 for punitive damages.
Ward appealed the decision and in 2019 the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision that Ward’s comments undermined the young performer’s right to safeguard his or her dignity and could not even be justified. in a society where freedom of expression is valued.
The court awarded Ward a partial victory by overturning the court order awarding damages to Gabriel’s mother, ruling that she had not been discriminated against.
The dissenting judge wrote that she disagreed with the court’s finding that the comments were discriminatory.