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  • Domenic Marinelli

An Intermittent Allowance of Freedom


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Freedom of speech … artists fought for this freedom; perhaps it can even be said that artists even died for this freedom. And if these freedoms were granted, why are we still fighting this war on being able to speak about subjects that are regarded as taboo?


Quebec-based comedian Mike Ward is still fighting this war, and is paying quite a hefty price for a joke he told quite a few years ago. It is in the aftermath of what went down soon after the joke was told, and all these years later, that Mike Ward faces the consequences of his creativity—or lack thereof—(depending on how you look at it). And it is amidst this as well, that we are all left asking the simple question: How free are we to speak freely in this ever-growing sensitive society?


Jérémy Gabriel


Before we get to know Mike Ward, perhaps a word on Jérémy Gabriel is in order. Jérémy Gabriel is a minor celebrity of some renown in the city and perhaps province. He has Treacher Collins syndrome, which targets the face and head, leading to deformity, and loss of hearing as well. He became a household name in the province when he sang for the Pope in 2006 after having a hearing aid installed. It was after discovering a love of singing that those around him encouraged him. This led to him singing at a Montréal Canadiens game in 2011, thus expanding his celebrity.

He now enjoys a career, having released a single back in 2016, entitled “I Don’t Care.”


The Mike Ward story


So in walks Mike Ward. Born in Quebec City, Ward has established himself as quite the comedian and rightfully so. He has stated of his routine that he is nothing like Ray Romano; he hits for the jugular and every time he possibly can.


It was on The Joe Rogan Experience that Ward spoke about the joke and how it was meant originally. He said: “… he was kind of like a Make-a-Wish type kid. He was famous in French Canada … the joke was—like I was super happy for him at first—this little deaf boy, he’s dying; his dream was to sing for the Pope. He became front page news … and at the end I was like: ‘Why isn’t he dead yet?’ …”


What he said for the sake of comedy is no doubt terrible and can be considered a cheap way to get a laugh (which it apparently did), but this is what freedom of speech is all about in the end, and it's up to each individual out there to decide what type of comedy, art etc. is for them and which is not.


This of course, was not how the rest of the nation, or the world took it. He was subsequently fined for the joke, as Jérémy’s parents filed an actual complaint against the comedian with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. What followed was a suit brought on by the commission themselves, the proceedings brought to the Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal, where they requested an astonishing $80,000 from Ward. It was then in 2016 that Ward was ordered to pay $42,000 in damages, split between Jérémy and his mother.


In 2019, Quebec’s highest court ruled in favor of Ward having to pay Jérémy, but ruled against him having to make a payout to Jérémy’s mother. A small favor doled out. But Ward and his attorney decided to make an appeal, and to an even higher court—the Supreme Court.

It was announced last week that the Supreme Court of Canada would hear Ward’s appeal.


Lenny Bruce & the history of comedy that pushes the boundaries


Does this fiasco remind anyone of someone in particular? I know it does for me. If anyone knows Lenny Bruce, or his story, you know that he was persecuted—even arrested for what he spoke about on stage … the types of jokes he made. In literature, we are reminded of The Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg and how his book of poetry, Howl was brought up on charges of indecency when published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publishing house, City Lights Books.

What do these things have in common with Mike Ward? Perhaps nothing … perhaps everything.

These men, these artists that came before … they paved the way for the artists of today, and if we suddenly revert back to that form of closed-mindedness, we are taking what they all fought for and throwing it away.


What’s next? The dystopian reality put forth by George Orwell in his novel, 1984?


The issue of sensitivity


Andrew Dice Clay anyone? How about a little Bob Saget? Now talk about uncomfortable jokes! It’s not a mystery that a comedian will take it to the limit, and since the era of Bruce himself, we were taught to understand what was for us and what wasn’t.


The Supreme Court needs to handle this ruling accordingly, and I hope that they will, because to place the shackles back on the hands and feet of the true artists of this world, and the tape over their mouths, would be taking society back to a time when authenticity in art was nowhere in sight. As artists, we are meant to hold up a mirror to society, because trust and believe me when I say that society, in all its actions and dealings on this earth, sure aren’t being censored nor scrutinized the way Mike Ward has been, believe me. Just take a look on social media if you don’t.


The world shouldn’t be made to cater to a new generation’s sensitivity and refusal to deal with reality.


And remember, if a piece of art isn’t for you, whether it be a film, a piece of music, a book, or a comedy act … stay away from it.


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Domenic Marinelli is a freelance writer / journalist and author of multiple books including Generic V, An Open Letter To Arthur Pond and Weathered Tracks. He has written for Park Extension News, The MTL Times, Steel Notes Magazine, Hot Cars, babbletop.com and many other publications.