Mike Ward, 'Petit Jérémy' head to human rights tribunal

Did comedian Mike Ward go too far in joking about a Quebec teen's Treacher Collins syndrome, an illness causing disfigurement? A human rights tribunal will weigh in on rights to privacy versus freedom of expression.

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Quebec comedian Mike Ward is the subject of a complaint over a joke in his 2012 show, Mike Ward s'eXpose. (Karine Dufour)

Quebec comedian Mike Ward will argue his constitutional right to freedom of expression permits him to make fun of a young man with a condition that causes disfigurement and deformities.

Jérémy Gabriel, who has Treacher Collins syndrome, had a moment in the spotlight when he flew to Rome to sing for Pope Benedict. (Radio-Canada)

The case was heard on Wednesday morning at the Montreal courthouse.

The family of Jérémy Gabriel made a complaint to the province's human rights tribunal in 2012 after Ward ridiculed the young man in his comedy show, Mike Ward s'eXpose

Gabriel, who is now 18, became known in Quebec when he was flown to Rome to sing for the Pope in 2006.

He has Treacher Collins syndrome, an illness that causes severe disfigurement.

In Ward's comedy bit, he said he at first humoured the attention Gabriel — or as he called him, Petit Jérémy — was getting. 

"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.

Gabriel says video led to bullying

At the courthouse on Wednesday, Gabriel said Ward went too far in his jokes about him. He said the jokes hurt his confidence and his career, and that it led to intimidation at his school. 

It made me think my life is worth less than another's because I'm handicapped.- Jérémy Gabriel

"At eight I wanted to follow my dreams, accept who I am and surpass it — give a message to others that because we're different it doesn't mean we cant do what we want to do with our lives," he said.

Gabriel, who has had more than 20 medical procedures to help him with his illness, said the video led him to attempt suicide.

"I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos," Gabriel said. "I didn't have maturity to be strong in the face of this — I lost confidence and hope. It made me think my life is worth less than another's because I'm handicapped."

If Ward is found by the tribunal to have infringed on Gabriel's human rights, he may be ordered to pay Gabriel a sum of money in compensation.

Freedom of expression?

Ward's lawyer, Julius Grey, said his client operated within the established norms of comedy. 

"Our position will be that satire and comedy are almost always [mean] and hard. That's the nature of comedy. The position that we will put forward is that there needs to be larger artistic freedoms," he said.

But Quebec law professor Louis-Philippe Lampron said Ward should have exercised better judgment in choosing Gabriel, a non-public person with an obvious illness, as a target.

"Not only is he not a public personality who should have a thicker skin for criticism or caricatures, but the opposite: He's a vulnerable and identifiable person," Lampron said.

He added that this isn't a matter of putting freedom of expression on trial, but rather a particular case involving a particular person.

Meanwhile, Grey said that the case against Ward is a sign of the country moving backwards on matters of freedom of expression.