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Impacts of the Supreme Court decision in the Mike Ward case

In investigating a complaint filed by Jérémy Gabriel, the Commission concluded that stand up comedian Mike Ward had used discriminatory language on the basis of Gabriel’s disability and his means of palliating it. Two Québec courts ruled that Ward had violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, but the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in the country, later ruled that Ward had not, however, discriminated against him.

This page discusses the impacts of this Supreme Court decision on the Commission’s investigative work and its consequences for people who experience offensive and hurtful language.

  • Impacts on the Commission’s services

    How does the Ward decision affect the Commission’s work?

    This Supreme Court ruling has reframed the Commission’s investigative jurisdiction.

    Language that targets prohibited grounds for discrimination, such as “race”, national or ethnic origin, colour, sexual orientation, disability, and religion, are still unacceptable, but from now on, they are not considered grounds for a complaint to the Commission unless they cause harm that goes beyond the right to dignity. After thorough analysis, the Commission has closed certain files regarding offensive and hurtful language that did not cause harm.

    Examples of situations that cause harm beyond the right to dignity

    • a store clerk uses racist language against someone and refuses to serve them because of their “race” or national origin
    • a landlord’s son insults a housing applicant because of their sexual orientation, and persuades his father not to rent to that person.

    What will the Commission do to raise awareness about offensive language?

    We will continue our work to raise awareness, educate the population and dismantle the prejudice that leads to discrimination and hurtful language. We will continue to mount campaigns denouncing the racism and stereotyping that violate people’s right to dignity.

    How does the Ward decision affect previous discriminatory language decisions issued by the Human Rights Tribunal?

    Court rulings are not retroactive, so there is no impact on decisions issued in the past.

  • Impacts for victims of offensive language

    What can victims of offensive or hurtful language do now that they can no longer file a complaint with the Commission?

    The legal remedies available for offensive or hurtful language depend on the situation.

    The Commission will continue to take complaints about language if:

    • the words are part of a situation of discriminatory harassment or racial profiling
    • the language is accompanied by discriminatory treatment, like being denied services, housing or employment

    In all other cases, a civil rights lawyer can help you analyze whether any legal recourse is possible.

    Unsure if your situation constitutes discrimination, harassment or racial profiling?

    Contact us and explain the circumstances. We can help you determine whether the Commission can take your complaint.
    Contact us

    The Commission has closed my complaint about discriminatory language. What can I do now?

    If we have closed your complaint, you may be able to take your case to a different legal authority. Every situation is different. A civil rights lawyer can analyze your specific situation to determine whether it can be brought to court.

    Does the time that my complaint was open with the Commission mean it is now too late to take other legal action?

    The limitation period is suspended from the time you file a complaint with the Commission until the moment you are notified that your file was closed. This means that the time during which your file was open with the Commission does not count toward your deadline for taking civil action for that situation. Your deadline for taking a different form of legal action therefore depends on how much time passed between the date when the situation occurred and the date when you filed your complaint with the Commission.

  • Impacts on freedom of expression and other Charter rights

    Does this ruling mean that hurtful and offensive language based on a prohibited ground for discrimination is now allowed in the name of freedom of expression?

    The Supreme Court did not deny the emotional harm caused by language that attacks someone’s gender, ethnic or national origin, “race”, sexual orientation or disability. The Commission still considers that such language has no place in an inclusive and open society. However, the right to freedom of expression is protected by the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and the Commission has always recognized its importance, including in our handling of Jérémy Gabriel’s complaint.

    The Ward decision was about disability, so why does it also affect racist and homophobic language, etc.?

    In this ruling, the Supreme Court set out specific criteria for determining the situations where language could constitute discrimination. These criteria must now be applied to all cases of hurtful or offensive language, regardless of which personal characteristic it targets.

The Mike Ward and Jérémy Gabriel case

In 2016, the Québec Human Rights Tribunal ordered stand up comedian Mike Ward to pay moral and punitive damages because of derogatory, humiliating and ridiculing remarks that Ward made about Jérémy Gabriel on the basis of Gabriel’s disability and his means of palliating it. In 2019, the Québec Court of Appeal ruled that freedom of expression does not simply allow people to say whatever they want, even for the sake of humour. However, in October 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed these Human Rights Tribunal and Court of Appeal judgments with a five to four majority.