With the help of his friends, comedian Mike Ward is ready to take on a Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruling that says he must pay $35,000 to Jérémy Gabriel for making jokes that violated the rights of the child singer with disabilities.
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"Even Rocky lost the first one. We're gonna appeal," Ward, who has long championed the right to be offensive, wrote on his social media accounts early Thursday.
The tribunal ordered Ward to pay Gabriel $25,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in punitive damages for a joke dating back to 2010. The decision also requires Ward to pay an additional $5,000 for moral damages and $2,000 for punitive damages to Jérémy's mother, Sylvie Gabriel.
Gabriel, who spoke publicly for the first time on Thursday after the ruling, said he was relieved by the tribunal's decision.
"It's a big relief, and at the same time I'm surprised," Gabriel said. "I was happy with the decision yesterday."
He added that he wasn't surprised that Ward plans to appeal the decision.
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Gabriel became well known in Quebec after he was flown to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict in 2006. He has Treacher Collins syndrome (TCS), a genetic condition that causes disfigurement.
In Ward's 2010 comedy bit, he said he was happy Gabriel — or as he called him, Petit Jérémy — was getting so much attention following the papal visit because he believed Gabriel had a terminal illness and was going to die.
Ward thought the papal visit was part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.
"But now, five years later, and he's still not dead! … Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won't die!" Ward said, adding that Gabriel wasn't dying, but "ugly."
Gabriel has argued Ward's jokes about him went too far and affected his quality of life. It hurt his career and confidence, and led to bullying at school, he said.
In September, Gabriel told the tribunal that the video of Ward's performance led him to attempt suicide.
Ward targets ruling during act
Ward immediately made jokes about the judgment Wednesday night as part of Montreal's Just for Laughs festival.
"One day, the caller ID read: Human Rights Tribunal. When I answered. the woman said, 'Mr. Ward, we're calling you about one of your jokes. We think you know the one," he told the crowd.
He went so far as to repeat the same jokes about Gabriel that were at the centre of the complaint from years ago.
Gabriel said he was disappointed by Ward's performance.
"It shows Mike Ward didn't understand the reason for the complaint and the decision of the tribunal."
Ward is scheduled to appear as part of the Just for Laughs Nasty Show both Thursday and Friday night.
'We're with you'
The ruling has spurred backlash across the comedian community, with many quickly declaring their support for Ward.
Montreal comedian Sugar Sammy posted a photo with Ward, writing that Ward was one of his "favourite comedians and an amazing person."
There are 42 000 reasons to go see this guy. He's one of my favourite comedians and an amazing… https://t.co/18IlzNT9hT— @sugarsammyk
"We're with you," he wrote on Instagram.
Others worried the judgment could impede free speech and humour.
Brad Williams, a comic who was born with dwarfism and whose jokes often centre on disabilities, called the decision "terrifying."
Louise Richer, director for Quebec's École nationale de l'humour, said the ruling symbolized a "politically correct era."
"I am incredibly worried by the precedent this has created," Richer told Radio-Canada.