A Quebec comedian whose calling card is "dirty or edgy" monologues has been ordered to pay $35,000 for jokes he made at the expense of a former child singer with disabilities.
Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that Mike Ward violated Jérémy Gabriel's rights when he targeted the boy during part of his Mike Ward s'eXpose comedy tour of 2010-13.
Mr. Gabriel was born with a complex of ear and face malformations called Treacher Collins syndrome.
Mr. Ward has been ordered to pay Mr. Gabriel $25,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.
He must also pay Mr. Gabriel's mother, Sylvie Gabriel, $5,000 in moral damages and $2,000 in punitive damages.
The family had asked for a total of $80,000 in their complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, claiming that Mr. Ward's jokes about the boy were an affront to his dignity.
Mr. Gabriel became a Quebec celebrity after he sang before a Montreal Canadiens hockey game, as well as for Celine Dion and Pope Benedict XVI.
One bit by Mr. Ward about Mr. Gabriel went viral on YouTube.
"The tribunal is convinced that Mr. Ward could not have been unaware of the consequences of his jokes on Jérémy," the tribunal's judge, Scott Hughes, said in his decision.
Mr. Ward's lawyer, Julius Grey, made the case before the tribunal that Mr. Ward was simply exercising his right to freedom of expression and that his humour is well within the bounds of acceptable comedy routines.
Mr. Grey said he will appeal the decision.
"Even Rocky lost the first one, we're gonna appeal," Mr. Ward wrote on his Twitter account after the decision was made public late Wednesday.
"For me, personally, [the decision] was a big relief. At the same time, it was a surprise," said Mr. Gabriel, now aged 19, at a news conference Thursday afternoon to comment on the tribunal's decision.
The controversy – along with one incident involving censorship of a comedy bit that was to air on television – prompted a public debate in the province over freedom of expression and what is protected under the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Ward and Mr. Grey had argued that Mr. Gabriel lost part of his protection against public ridicule when he was thrust into the spotlight.
"I wasn't laughing at his handicap, I was laughing at the public person he had become," Mr. Ward said in a radio interview last fall.