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Comedian Mike Ward’s mockery of disabled Quebec singer not discriminatory: Supreme Court

Comedian Mike Ward’s disparaging comments about a singer with a disability did not amount to discrimination under Quebec’s rights charter, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

In a 5-4 judgment Friday, the high court set aside a decision ordering Ward to pay damages for mocking Jeremy Gabriel, saying a discrimination claim must not become a defamation action.

The high-profile case pitted artistic expression, in the form of dark comedy, against the protection of one’s dignity.

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Gabriel, who has Treacher Collins syndrome — a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial deformities — became a celebrity in Quebec after he sang with Celine Dion and for the Pope.

In his act, which took aim at well-known figures considered beyond mockery, Ward joked he thought Gabriel’s illness was terminal and people were only nice to him because he would soon die.

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Ward then joked that after he realized the child was not going to die, he tried to drown him.

In 2016, Quebec’s human rights tribunal ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages to Gabriel based on the remarks Ward made during shows between 2010 and 2013.

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The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled two years ago that Ward’s comments compromised the young performer’s right to his dignity and could not be justified, even in a society that values freedom of expression.

Ward has defended himself by saying comedy is not a crime. “In a ‘free’ country, it shouldn’t be up to a judge to decide what constitutes a joke on stage,” Ward has tweeted. “The people in attendance laughing already answered that question.”

A majority of the Supreme Court concluded that the elements of a discrimination claim under the Quebec charter had not been established.

“A discrimination claim is not, and must not become, an action in defamation,” said the decision. “The two are governed by different considerations and have different purposes. A discrimination claim must be limited to expression whose effects are truly discriminatory.”




© 2021 The Canadian Press

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