Comedian Mike Ward ordered to pay $35K to Jérémy Gabriel

Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that comedian Mike Ward must pay former child singer Jérémy Gabriel $35,000 for making jokes about his disabilities.

Human Rights Tribunal orders stand-up comic to pay $25K for moral damages, $10K for punitive damages

Ward told the audience at The Nasty Show that if he had tried to guess which joke it was that the Human Rights Tribunal called him on he would only have gotten in more trouble. 0:38

Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that comedian Mike Ward must pay Jérémy Gabriel $35,000 for making jokes that violated his rights.

Ward has been ordered to pay the former child singer with disabilities $25,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.

He will also need to pay Sylvie Gabriel, Jérémy's mother, a total of $5,000 for moral damages and $2,000 for punitive damages. 

Jérémy Gabriel, a singer with Treacher Collins syndrome, became famous in Quebec after he was flown to Rome to sing for the Pope in 2006, when he was 10 years old.

Ward became the subject of a complaint made to the Human Rights Tribunal in 2012 for making fun of Gabriel in his comedy show, Mike Ward's eXpose.

The jokes go back to 2010, when Ward did a bit about "petit Jérémy." 

The plaintiff argued the jokes gravely affected Gabriel's dignity.

During the case, Gabriel's lawyer Marie Dominique argued that there is a difference between making fun of a public figure and making fun of a child with a disability.

Jérémy Gabriel has Treacher Collins syndrome. He previously had 15 minutes of fame when he flew to Rome to sing for the Pope. (Radio-Canada)
 Dominique said Ward's jokes reinforced stereotypes of people with disabilities, adding that the jokes hurt the boy's confidence, his career and led to bullying in school.

The judge, Scott Hughes, concluded the jokes went beyond being an exercise in freedom of expression.

"The discrimination that Jérémy fell victim to is unjustifiable," Hughes said in his judgment released late Wednesday. 

'Mandate to appeal'

Ward's lawyer, Julius Grey, argues that Ward was exercising freedom of expression and that his client was operating within the norms of comedy.

Grey says he will appeal the decision. 

"I'm in total disagreement with the decision and I've already received the mandate to appeal it," Grey told CBC News. 

"I'm in such disagreement with the judgment that I couldn't even take it apart in bits and pieces. The whole judgment needs to be taken to appeal." 

Freedom of expression

The founder of the Just for Laughs festival, Gilbert Rozon, said any time the law begins to scrutinize freedom of expression he gets worried.

"I think freedom of expression — like the assumption of innocence — is something we've worked hard for over many centuries," Rozon said following the ruling. 

"I'm always worried when we get too involved in it, putting down rules, laws, over what we can and cannot say. It always gives me a certain fear."

Ward is scheduled to appear as part of the Just for Laugh's festival in The Nasty Show from Wednesday until Friday.

During his Wednesday night set, he spoke almost exclusively about the judgment. 

He said, "I didn't know there was a Human Rights Tribunal until I got sued."

"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.'"

Ward told the audience at The Nasty Show that if he had tried to guess which joke it was he would only get in more trouble since all his jokes could be considered offensive.

with files from Sean Henry, Radio-Canada