French-Canadian comedian Mike Ward is planning to fight a decision ordering him to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a child singer with disabilities, who was the butt of one of his jokes.
"I'm disappointed and a little embarrassed to be Canadian. On the world stage, we look like a bunch of buffoons that can't tell the difference between comedy — artistic expression — and real life," Ward told VICE News. "We are going to appeal."
The ruling, passed down by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, requires Ward to pay $25,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in punitive damages to Jeremy Gabriel, who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome — a condition that causes affects the development of bones and tissues in the face— for a joke he made about him at a show in 2010, the CBC reported. Ward has also been ordered to pay $5,000 in moral damages and $2,000 in punitive damages to Gabriel's mother, Sylvie Gabriel.
The tribunal sided with Gabriel, ruling that Ward had infringed on his right to have his disability, honour, and reputation safeguarded without discrimination, rejecting Ward's defence that there was a "clear difference between harassment against a person and an artistic work being produced before a willing audience," according to the Canadian Press.
The family of the 19-year-old, who gained recognition in Quebec after being flown to Rome to sing for the Pope in 2006, filed the complaint in 2012 about the bit in Ward's comedy special, in which he made fun of a number of people who he said are generally avoided by comics as fodder for material.
The child who got to sing for the Pope — petit Jeremy, as Ward called him — was one such person. While Ward said he was initially happy to defend Gabriel when others made fun of him, he'd been under the impression that he was a terminally ill child, being granted a dying wish by a children's foundation, he continued.
"But five years later, he wasn't dead, he's not dying," he quipped on stage. "The little bastard, he's just not dying."
Gabriel couldn't be killed, Ward continued, joking that he'd unsuccessfully tried to drown him once, and that when he looked up Gabriel's condition online, he found that it was being "ugly."
Gabriel, who could not be reached for comment, testified at the tribunal that the bit hurt his career and confidence, and that it resulted in bullying at school. In September, he said he tried to commit suicide after seeing the video.
"I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos," Gabriel told the CBC in September. "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."
But Ward defended himself, saying the bullying likely started before he'd even made the joke, and that he couldn't be held responsible for everything that had happened to Gabriel. He added that if Gabriel's family had complained directly to him, he would've stopped telling the joke.
"I do comedy to make people laugh, not to hurt people's feelings," he told VICE News in February.
Ward made light of the decision immediately after it came out at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival, even repeating the joke that landed him in trouble in the first place, the CBC reported.
"It shows Mike Ward didn't understand the reason for the complaint and the decision of the tribunal," Gabriel told the CBC.
Many comedians have spoken out in support of Ward since the decision came down.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk