Despite Supreme Court loss, Jérémy Gabriel hopes his 10-year battle inspires others to fight

·4 min read
Despite Supreme Court loss, Jérémy Gabriel hopes his 10-year battle inspires others to fight
After the Supreme Court ruled against him, Jérémy Gabriel says 'we must never underestimate the value of our fights' as he hopes his own battle will inspire others. (Radio-Canada - image credit)
After the Supreme Court ruled against him, Jérémy Gabriel says 'we must never underestimate the value of our fights' as he hopes his own battle will inspire others. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

Jérémy Gabriel's voice shook as he spoke to reporters Friday after a 10-year legal battle finally came to an end at Canada's highest court.

"It took a lot of my time and energy," said Gabriel during a morning news conference.

"I do accept the decision. The real beauty of that is I can move on now."

That decision split 5-4 Friday, ruling in favour of comedian Mike Ward, whose act ridiculed Gabriel, a young man with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by skull and facial abnormalities.

The court ruled that Ward did not breach the limits of free speech guaranteed under Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

In its ruling, the court found that Gabriel was not chosen as a target because of his disability, but rather because of his fame. The court also found that Ward's jokes did not seek to incite others to mock Gabriel and Ward cannot be blamed for the actions of Gabriel's classmates and others who parroted the jokes.

Gabriel said he plans to focus more on his life and schoolwork. No matter the Supreme Court's decision, he said, "We denounce the jokes Mike Ward made against me."

WATCH | What Jérémy Gabriel says about the Supreme Court ruling:

In 2016, a human rights tribunal ordered Ward to pay $35,000 in moral and punitive damages for comments he made about Gabriel, who was a child at the time.

Friday's ruling is significant because it is the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case where it has had to rule on the balance between a person's right to live in dignity and the right to freedom of expression in the context of a comedian's act.

Gabriel says he has no regrets

Gabriel addressed all those who attacked him over the years as he pushed on through the courts and media coverage. He said every insult — every threat — only motivated him to continue the legal battle.

"I don't regret anything after all that has happened in the last 10 years," said Gabriel.

When he was a boy, hearing the comedian's numerous jokes about him, Gabriel said he tried to take his own life and he would like Ward to know that.

"I would like to tell him how I felt when I first heard the jokes," he said.

"That I tried to end my life. How it felt at 13 years old ... because a 40-year-old man said, 'You should die,' that you thought it was the right thing to do."

He said he is concerned about the future after this ruling. If a well-known comedian can be hurtful to a child, he explained, "I am worried about our children."

However, he still has hope. He wants to inspire people to be confident and defend themselves against unacceptable conditions.

"Equality is for everyone. I still firmly believe that," he said.

Sylvie Gabriel, his mother, released a video comment of her own, as she was the one who lodged the original complaint in 2012 with Quebec's Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, which referred the matter to the human rights tribunal.

Both she and her son called for collective reflection on which jokes are funny, and which jokes are discriminatory and harmful.

'Victory for liberty,' says human rights lawyer

As for Ward, he took to Twitter soon after the decision was announced and retweeted the late Norm Macdonald, a Canadian comedian and actor who died last month of cancer.

"We did it Norm, we won," Ward said.

In Macdonald's tweet from 2016, he described Ward as a genius who "was fined $40,000 for offending THEM. THEM."

Montreal-based constitutional and human rights lawyer Julius Grey defended Ward at the Supreme Court.

"Well, I'm relieved and very happy, and I think it's a victory for Mike Ward, certainly, but also for liberty across the country," said Grey.

"I think it was necessary to restrain the overreaching power of human rights tribunals across the country."

Grey said those powers have to be limited because otherwise everything can be considered discrimination, and Friday's ruling allows artists, performers and every other Canadian to feel safer expressing themselves in the future.

"What was at stake was liberty: artistic liberty, political liberty, journalistic liberty, individual liberty," said Grey. "This, in my view, was a victory for liberty."

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