National Post (Latest Edition)
If the majority of the Quebec Court of appeal prevails, the whole notion of a standup comic becomes questionable.
— LAWYER JULIUS GREY,
MONTREAL • If comedian Mike Ward’s comments about a young singer with a disability aren’t protected under the Charter of rights and Freedoms, it will have a “chill effect” on freedom of expression in Canada, lawyer Julius Grey has told the Supreme Court.
Ward’s case was heard by Canada’s top court Monday. The comedian is trying to reverse a Quebec Human rights Tribunal decision that determined his act included discriminatory comments against Jérémy Gabriel.
Gabriel, who was 13 when Ward first made him part of his act in 2010, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterized by underdeveloped cheekbones and jaws.
Gabriel was born deaf. When he was six, he underwent surgery to implant a bone-anchored hearing aid. The device allows him to hear up to 90 per cent of sounds, and he learned how to speak and sing.
during his act, Ward referred to Gabriel as “the kid with the subwoofer” on his head.
In 2005, Gabriel gained a measure of fame after appearing on a television show called donnez au suivant. He also sang the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens game at the bell Centre, and went on to sing with Céline dion in Las Vegas and for Pope benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2006.
The tribunal ruled that Ward’s comments were discriminatory under Quebec’s Charter of Human rights and Freedoms. It ruled the comments violated Gabriel’s right to dignity and ordered the comedian to pay $35,000 to the singer and another $7,000 to his mother.
The Quebec Court of Appeal supported the tribunal’s decision, in part; one of the three judges dissented, finding the tribunal’s decision was not reasonable.
It is the first time that a comedian’s jokes are being argued before the Supreme Court of Canada.
On Monday, Grey repeated his argument that Ward did not target Gabriel because of his disability. The attorney said Ward was making fun of the “sacred cows” in Quebec’s popular culture at the time.
“Jérémy Gabriel was not chosen for his handicap. It was a program about sacred cows, deflating sacred cows. The other sacred cows (were) also excoriated for their personal characteristics,” Grey said while attempting to explain the goal of Ward’s act about a decade ago.
Grey argued Ward had a right to make jokes about Gabriel as singer “because he was in the public arena.”
“If the majority of the Quebec Court of Appeal prevails, the whole notion of a standup comic becomes questionable,” Grey said.
“If the majority of the Quebec Court of Appeal prevails, standup comedy will become goody-goody humour.”
Grey further argued Ward complimented Gabriel by making him “equal” to other “sacred cows” mentioned in his routine, like dion, rené Angélil, Guy A. Lepage and Ariane Moffatt.
Justice russell brown interrupted Grey at that point.
“Oh, come on. We’re not talking about Galileo or Salman rushdie here. He’s no hero,” brown said, referencing
THE WHOLE NOTION OF A STANDUP COMIC BECOMES QUESTIONABLE.
two names who suffered significantly for expressing their opinions.
In a later exchange with Grey, brown questioned how he could portray Ward as “a champion of equality.”
At least two Supreme Court judges asked Grey to clarify Ward’s comments about how he “tried to drown Jérémy” when he saw him at Club Piscine store, where pools are sold, but failed.
Grey replied the comments were not a threat but merely an observation that Gabriel was so popular in Quebec that his jokes couldn’t harm him.
Lawyer Stéphane Harvey, representing Gabriel and his family, said he doesn’t see the case as a question of clashing rights. He said Ward simply went too far by targeting the boy’s disability.
“you can’t trade on a person’s dignity.” Harvey said. “This was not what was intended when the National Assembly passed the Charter of Human rights and Freedoms.”
Chief Justice richard Wagner said the court will deliberate on the matter before delivering its decision.