A decade ago, as part of his number, a Canadian comedian started telling a joke about a young singer with a disability. That joke ended in front of the highest court in Canada.
Jeremy Gabriel was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that can affect facial bone structure. In your case, it caused a severe deafness.
Despite this, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a singer, and went on to perform before public figures, from singer Céline Dion to Pope Benedict XVI.
He became a celebrity in his native Quebec.
In 2010, a popular comedian from that Canadian province, Mike Ward, known for his dark and daring humor, did a 90-minute monologue.
In addition to thorny issues of race and religion, he focused on the “sacred cows,” he said, of the province’s celebrity system, people who, in his opinion, were for various reasons too rich or too powerful, leaving them off limits to humor.
The repercussions of this spectacle have lasted almost a decade in Quebec and culminate on February 15, when The lengthy legal battle over a joke Ward told about Gabriel will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
A joke repeated over 200 times
As part of her number, Ward targeted people like Céline Dion and her late husband, René Angélil, among others.
He also talked about Gabriel, who by then was known in the press as “Petit Jeremy” and who had also released an album and an autobiography.
Ward said he had mistakenly believed that Gabriel’s condition was terminal. He also joked about Gabriel’s appearance in relation to his disability.
In court documents, without Ward’s tone, it can be hard to see why the audience is laughing, but they do, honestly.
“I didn’t know how far I could go with that joke. At one point I said to myself ‘you’re going too far, they’re going to stop laughing.’ But no, they don’t,” says Ward.
The show performed live more than 200 times between 2010 and 2013It was also put on the internet.
Gabriel first encountered Ward’s jokes in 2010, when he was 13 years old and starting high school. He was harassed and Ward’s number further fueled the bullying.
“I couldn’t go a day without being told one of his jokes,” he says now, at 24.
He felt attacked due to his disability and began to withdraw socially and to seriously think about suicide. Gabriel’s family never approached the comedian directly.
“Because of the nature of the jokes, because of what was being said, we thought they wouldn’t take us seriously,” says Gabriel.
Then, in 2012, they heard Ward talk about the joke on a popular news show.
“Comparing himself to a cocaine addict, he said he needs to make jokes that go too far,” court documents state.
It was then that the family filed a human rights complaint.
When Ward’s case was brought before the Quebec Human Rights Court, a specialized court that handles cases related to discrimination or harassment under the provincial bill of rights, the comedian lost.
Beyond freedom of expression
The court determined that there was “exceeded the limits of freedom of expression” and that his joke was discriminatory on the grounds of disability.
He appealed and, in a 2019 split decision, the Court of Appeals mostly upheld the court’s decision, as well as a $ 27,500 award for Gabriel for moral and punitive damages.
The court’s intention “is not to restrict creativity or censor the opinions of artists,” said the ruling, but “Comedians, like any citizen, are responsible for the consequences of their words when they cross certain lines.”
Ward had already decided that if he lost, he would seek to take the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Comedy is not a crime,” he said in a statement released after the Court of Appeals decision. “In a ‘free’ country, it shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage.”
He said that the laughter of the crowd “answered that question.”
Ward has said he is refusing to pay damages: “not for me, but for the young comedians, the comedians of tomorrow.” He argues that it is fundamental to the trade that comedians can take risks.
And he maintains that since Gabriel was a public figure he was open to satire.
Gabriel, however, responds: “Being a public person does not mean that you no longer have any rights.”
“A line has been crossed, I strongly believe in that,” he adds.
The debate it generated
Many comedians, in Quebec and elsewhere, have joined Ward. Just For Laughs, the world-renowned Montreal comedy festival, put on a show a few years ago to help Ward with legal costs.
The support comes amid concern in stand-up that he has been involved in the debate on political correctness, freedom of expression, censorship and the culture of cancellation.
There is a fear that this will have a chilling effect on the comedy.
Michael Lifshitz, a Canadian comedian born with multiple congenital musculoskeletal abnormalities, use the stand-up to educate people about disability.
When the case first made headlines, he joked: “I’m going to sue myself for the jokes I make about my disability, because I admit it, some of my jokes are not politically correct.”
Say what you don’t want to be treated differently because of your condition, even if that makes him the butt of a joke. He sees the case as a missed opportunity to change social attitudes around disability.
“I’m not sure how a court case really advances the issue of inclusion or prevents other people from becoming victims of stalkers,” he says.
“I think it is a dangerous precedent when the court says what can and cannot be said; that should be left to the court of public opinion,” he adds.
Before the Supreme Court hearing, Gabriel says that both parties to the case have been able manifest.
“I think it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. I think that’s what I did and I think that’s what Mike Ward did” when he decided to continue fighting the court’s decision, he considers.
“I also uphold my beliefs that freedom of expression is not without consequences.”
For his part, Ward has joked in the past that if he loses in the latter instance that he “will move to Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or some other country that respects free speech as much as Canada.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.