The Canadian Comedian on Trial Before a Human Rights Tribunal for a Mean Joke
Mike Ward was born in Quebec City in 1973, seven years prior to the first of two Quebec Referendums, a vote called by the separatist Parti Québécois in 1980 to secede the country’s second most populated province from Canada. The son of an Anglophone father, when Ward and his family attended St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in his hometown they would remind each other on the walk to the parade to pretend to be French to avoid “getting in a fight.”
The 42-year-old Ward is now facing the fight of his comedic career, as a joke he delivered about Jeremy Gabriel, a Quebec City singer who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare disease that causes facial disfigurement and deafness, has placed the province’s prince of “trash humor” center stage before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.
The joke in question was featured during Ward’s 2013 French language special s’eXpose, which he toured across the province as a one-man show before it was released for download on his website and pressed as a DVD in November of that year. In the two-minute bit about “Petit Jeremy,” Ward describes Gabriel as having a “sub-woofer on his head” and explains how at first he defended Gabriel (the singer traveled to Rome in 2006 at the age of nine to perform for Pope Benedict XVI) against critics of the child’s voice, but now, five years later, Gabriel is still alive. The bit culminates with the following punchline (English translation provided by Mike Ward):
The little fucker won’t die; I was defending him like an asshole! And he won’t die! If I defend you, you die, that’s the deal we had! That heartless little fucker is un-killable, I saw him at a waterpark last summer, I tried to drown him… nothing. I went on the Internet to find out more about him, what he’s suffering from. You know what he has? He’s ugly!
In 2012, Gabriel’s family brought a formal complaint about the bit to the Commission des droits de la personne et des drois de la jeunesse (translated to mean the Commission of Human and Youth Rights). Under Quebec law, if the Commission decides that a complaint has merit, it can act on behalf of the complainant and bring a case forward to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, a specialized court that handles cases on discrimination and harassment based on characteristics (sex, race, etc.) mentioned in Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as issues of exploitation of the elderly or disabled, and affirmative action programs.
An important distinction must be drawn between Canadian federal law and the United States Constitution. In the U.S., the First Amendment stipulates that Congress can make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” however Canada’s Charter does not explicitly include the words “freedom of speech.” Instead, under Section 2, it stipulates that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
The exclusion of freedom of speech allows human rights tribunals flexibility in their deliberation, as they weigh an individual’s right not to be subjected to hate speech or discrimination against another’s right to free thought, belief, opinion, and expression. The counter-argument however is that this gives the government a disproportionate amount of power in cases when these fundamental rights are up for debate.
The Ward case is an outlier for the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which predominantly deliberates on instances of workplace discrimination. One of the more famous cases occurred in 2006, when a boss at Calego International (according to court testimony), upset about the cleanliness of his company’s kitchen, brought in an interpreter to tell his 15 Chinese employees that “This is Canada, not China. We take showers and shampoo every day, wash hands with soap, flush the toilet after use… This is my kitchen, not yours. My kitchen, I want it clean. You Chinese eat like pigs.” The Tribunal ruled in 2011 that the employer had to pay $10,000 to each employee in moral and punitive damages.
Mike Ward launched his comedy career in 1993, performing exclusively on Montreal’s English language stages until 1995, when a friend pointed out that the French standup comedy scene was beginning to take off. Pushing the line from the outset of his career, he began exclusively performing in French in 1997, when he says that he was getting so much work that he didn’t have time to perform in his native tongue.
Quebec’s entertainment industry is one of the few places in Canada where a comedian can make a substantial living staying at home, as most English language entertainers only remain in the country long enough to build a portfolio that will allow them to pursue a Green Card in the United States. Lorne Michaels, Phil Hartman, John Candy, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Norm MacDonald, and more recently Nathan Fielder and Samantha Bee, are examples of comedians who have achieved notoriety south of the 49th parallel, inspiring an exodus of Anglophone Canadian talent to the plains of New York and Los Angeles in pursuit of stardom and a living wage.
“When I was growing up the first comic that I saw where I said to myself ‘I want to by that guy’ was Eddie Murphy when I watched Delirious, it changed my life,” says Ward, adding that Murphy opened the door to Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, and Andrew Dice Clay, even going as far as to seek out audio tapes of Lenny Bruce performances.
“There is this weird thing in the Quebecois star system, everywhere else in the world a comic is pretty low on the list of celebrities, but in Quebec comedians are the biggest stars. A French tour of Quebec can sell a couple hundred-thousand tickets for just a one-man show, which is insane for such a little province.”
Jeremy Gabriel has been deposed twice during the case, stating in 2015 that the video led to a suicide attempt.
“I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos. 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.”
In February of 2016 Gabriel, now 19 years old, added “It was horrible during all those years to endure, to be a teen, to be a successful artist, with all those comments, with all those laughs. So I wanted to say that it’s not acceptable for me and for my family. And I think for the entire society too. When we make a joke about someone, about a disabled person, we can laugh, we can make comments, but we always have to do that in full respect.”
Before he was formally served by the Commission, Mike Ward says that his manager received a phone call advising that contents of his client’s special might result in a court appearance. It wasn’t the first time that one of Ward’s jokes had gotten the comedian in hot water; after the 2007 disappearance of nine-year old Cédrika Provencher in Trois-Rivières, he riffed that he suspected Revenu Québec as the alleged kidnappers (“For eight dollars they will steal your children”). The Commission is asking Ward to pay the Gabriel family $80,000 in damages, which he says has resulted in $93,000 in legal fees to this point in the case.
“Business-wise it’s a bad move, but I felt it was something I had to do,” Ward explains.
“When I called my lawyer and said I just got a bill for $80,000, he said it’s not a real thing, they are just sending that to you to settle. It was either pay the 80k, or go to court, so I told my lawyer I want to go to court, I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to give even $1,000, it almost feels like extortion, so fuck it, I would rather give my lawyer $100,000 than give [the family] $20,000.”
“I don’t ever apologize for jokes that offend people. Some comics do, and maybe some comics should, but giving out money for a joke is insane. When I wrote that joke the goal wasn’t to hurt the little kid, it was to make people laugh. If I start giving money to him, then other people will be like “you made fun of fat people, hey I’m fat,” and ask for money. I didn’t want that door to open, I didn’t want to be the guy that changes everything for comedians.”
While the Ward case is a first in Quebec, there is precedent in Canada for a comedian to be brought in front of a human rights tribunal. At the opposite end of the country, Guy Earle hurled a slew of homophobic insults at Lorna Pardy while he hosted a 2007 open mic in Vancouver. Pardy was attending the show with her lesbian partner, and Earle began the tirade when he felt the couple was interrupting his performance. The back-and-forth resulted in a physical altercation between Pardy and Earle, and a British Columbia human rights tribunal ordered Earle to pay $15,000 in damages, with the ruling being upheld on appeal at the B.C. Supreme Court.
By all accounts, Jeremy Gabriel was never in the same room with Mike Ward until the case was brought before the tribunal. For Tim Steeves, who began performing standup in Montreal in 1985, and currently writes for CBC’s satirical news program The Rick Mercer Report, the case boils down to the fact that Gabriel was a celebrity in the public eye, and feels the Tribunal has overstepped its jurisdiction.
“I’m not a fan of the joke, I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but I think the joker is allowed to do it, and this isn’t going to make me change anything I do. If anything it’s going to make me push harder,” he explains, having just returned to Toronto after performing at the Halifax Comedy Festival.
“Mike doesn’t know this kid as his next-door neighbor, he isn’t the handicapped kid who he’s looking at over the back of his fence. That isn’t who [Ward] is fucking with, Mike is taking the piss out of stuff that is in play, that’s on TV, on the radio, and in the newspaper. That’s what Mike does, it’s insensitive, it’s edgy, it’s dark, it’s shocking, but that’s his fucking job. He is just a guy out there doing his job, and when Mike’s fans come and pay their shillings, that’s what they want. They want to blush, and say ‘Can you believe what he just fucking said?’ That’s his fan base, and if people don’t like it, then don’t go to his shows and don’t watch his special. Do you know how many billions of artists I fucking hate? I don’t watch their shit… it’s pretty simple, problem solved.”
Quebec has a rich history of political satire, where French-language cartoonists regularly push the limits of good taste when lampooning public figures. When Gaétan Barrette was assigned the position of Quebec Health Minister, Le Devoir’s Michel Garneau, who pens cartoons under the nom-de-plume Garnotte, was merciless in ridiculing the irony of Barrette’s obesity. Regardless of the outcome for Ward, Université de Laval law professor Louis-Philippe Lampron feels that the case will have no effect on the province’s culture of “trash” humor.
“Humor is at the core of free speech, but when you are talking about Jeremy Gabriel, while you are talking about someone who was in the public eye, [Gabriel] was not in a position of power,” he says.
“He was a child, and a disabled child at that, and we heard about him because he was trying to live his dream. I have the impression that [the case] is really about how [Ward] repeated jokes that [Gabriel] is disabled and ugly, where if he had been talking in general about the disabled [Ward] would not have been pursued. The important thing to emphasize is that even if Mike Ward is condemned, this is not the end of ‘trash’ humor. If the decision is rendered correctly, it really is a condemnation of Mike Ward, because these instances are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
While the verdict in Ward’s case isn’t expected until August, the lingering spectre of the decision hasn’t affected his career. For the second year in a row he will host the iconic Nasty Show at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival in July, his new one-man show, “Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free,” will be mounted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, and he will be touring seven foreign countries from May until September.
But the case has taken an emotional toll; Ward says he suffered from depression in December, requiring him to take a month off from performing, while completely avoiding the internet.
“The hardest part was having so many people send me messages, on Twitter or Facebook, saying that they hated me because of the joke, when most people had never heard the joke, or had even heard of me. It was weird, because last year I actually received an award from the Quebec ComediHa Festival for [his charity work], and then a month later I’m getting a million messages saying ‘You are a fucking asshole, my brother is handicapped, and how dare you.’”
“It hasn’t really changed anything. I had noticed that people were getting more sensitive than they used to be, and I had changed my writing style a little, but then I think getting sued probably made me angry, so it might have made my writing a little darker. I don’t want people to think I’m a mean comic, I’m not, most of the jokes I write are dirty, or dark, but they aren’t mean. I want the people in the audience to think I’m funny, that I’m not here to hurt people. I let it bother me before the holidays, but I can’t let it bother me because I’ll go nuts and kill myself. Whether you write jokes that are dark or sweet, they all come from the same place. I think people write jokes just to make people laugh, and sometimes I guess we don’t think this joke might hurt someone, but I guess now I found out they do sometimes.”
Scott McLean is a writer and photographer who profiles Canadian comedians, artists, and entrepreneurs on his website McLeanisms.com. He occasionally tells jokes on stage, and his new monthly show The Hustle premieres at Toronto’s Comedy Bar on May 18th.