It was a human rights hearing that at times sounded like an ad for Corona beer.  A discussion with waitresses about getting a round of cold Corona was the first in a chain of events that led to a hearing last week at the BC Human Rights Tribunal, a hearing in which Zesty’s restaurant in Vancouver and an MC at their ‘open mic’ comedy night were accused of discrimination based on “sex and sexual orientation.” At the hearing, Zesty’s owner Salam Ismail, revealed that he had not waited for a Tribunal decision; he had gone ahead and chilled free speech during comedy nights at his restaurant.

First, the beer.

Lorna Pardy, a lesbian who lodged the complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal, had been sitting on the patio at Zesty’s with her girlfriend Zoey and a few of Zoey’s friends, drinking cold Corona beer on May 22, 2007 . At roughly 11 p.m., a waitress told them she was closing the patio and asked them to move inside. Pardy, Zoey, and Zoey’s heterosexual friend Carlin Sandor, got a table inside the restaurant and interacted with the waitresses in an attempt to order another round of Corona. That interaction — the waitresses didn’t have any more cold Corona — reportedly distracted from the show on stage and coincided with the launch of an anti-lesbian tirade by the MC on the stage, Guy Earle.

Pardy testified that while the attempt to order another round of Corona was underway, her girlfriend Zoey, leaned over to give her a kiss — other witnesses said they were “making out”. But Pardy was clear during questioning by Salam Ismail’s brother Sam Ismail — Salam can’t afford a lawyer — that she believed it was not the kiss, but the attempt to order more Corona, that set Earle off:

Sam Ismail: “You claim you sat at the first table. You said Guy Earle got upset because you kissed your friend. Am I right?”

Pardy: “No you’re not right….He confused us trying to straighten out our drink order with the waitresses as us trying to disrupt his show.” […]

“[Earle] saw [Zoey] kiss me on the face when we sat down. He didn’t say anything right away.”  She went on to explain that they then spent “not even five minutes” interacting with the waitresses, “standing by the booth, trying to figure out if we were going to have another drink.” […]

“[The waitress, Samantha] brought out another case of beer to show us. ‘Oh yeah, we do have another case of beer ladies, and if you’d like one, you can drink it warm’,” Pardy testified, imitating Samantha’s little-girl voice. Pardy, who said she’d had a total of 1 1/2 bottles of Corona that night, turned down the offer for a warm beer.  […]

“It was after Zoey had said a couple of things to me, [Earle] called us fucking dykes and cunts.”

Sam Ismail: Where you conversing loudly?

Pardy: No

Sam Ismail: Did you say anything to him then?

Pardy: No….I booed him, other than that, nothing.

Samantha, a twenty-something waitress with short brown hair and a little girl-voice that I realized Pardy had nailed with her imitation, testified about the Corona order not going smoothly. She had not been the waitress for Pardy’s table though; it had been a new waitress, Brandy.

Samantha: I remember getting a case of corona from the back.

Sam Ismail: Why?

Samantha: Brandy asked me if we had any.

Sam Ismail: Was she serving them Corona?

Samantha: Yes […]

Samantha: I went and got her a case of Corona, it wasn’t cold enough.

When Carlin Sandor testified about the attempt to order Corona beer that had drawn them to Guy Earle’s attention, she acknowleged that the conversation with the waitresses had been a little loud. They had to raise their voices so that they could hear one another, she explained, as “there were people on stage talking through a microphone.” Sandor recalled a waitress being “unsure” if they had any more Corona and asking if they would like to order something else.At that point, according to Sandor, “Another waitress came up with a case of Corona; we were saying, “Oh Yeh!, there’s more Corona.” We were laughing; the waitresses were laughing.”

Sandor was aware that there was a comedy show going on. “Zoey leaned over and kissed Lorna on the cheek.” That was when Earle said, “Don’t mind the inconsiderate dykes over there; you know lesbians, they’re always ruining it for everybody.”

Contradicting claims by Earle and male comics who were at the show, Sandor testified that the women had not provoked Earle by heckling. “The only person we’d spoken to at that point were the waitresses.”Then, according to Sandor, Earle scolded the women, “You know I just don’t understand; don’t you wanna be a man? I mean all you’re gonna do is go home and put a strap on and f*ck your girlfriend anyway.” She recalled calling out to Earle that he was being “ignorant”.

That version of events was partially corroborated by Mike Wolfe, a comic who was on stage when the women walked in from the patio. Wolfe told the women not to be so loud and recalled them being polite in response. He says it wasn’t until Earle, who had a reputation for “harsh” language, began insulting the women, telling them to put a “cock” in their mouths, that they hurled insults back.

Earle has admitted in interviews — he didn’t testify — that he he hurled insults at the women about putting on a “strap-on dildo” and wanting to be a man. But he accuses them of being loud, heckling him, and creating a distraction by kissing, “tongue and tonsil wrestling”, in front of the stage.

In this case, a precedent may be set by the Tribunal as to whether speech in a comedy club will be free or pc. Or maybe not, if the BC Supreme Court finds the Tribunal in contempt of court. Earle’s lawyer has asked the court to find the Tribunal in contempt for proceding with the hearing before reviewing whether they actually had jurisdiction in this case, a review the court previously ask them to carry out.

But a decision on free speech has already been made by Ismail, an Iraqi immigrant who says this process has left him, “exhausted, emotionally, financially, physically”.   In sometimes broken English, Ismail testified that before Earle insulted the lesbians, “we didn’t have that much experience to tell comics what to do and not to do.” Ismail didn’t have an official policy but would “tell them I don’t want you to be so loud, don’t want bad language. But sometimes they do it.”

They won’t be doing it now.“Now I do have a policy because I don’t want to repeat the same problem. I tell them, ‘Don’t pick on customers. Your job is only on stage and that’s it.”Pardy’s lawyer, Devyn Cousineau, asked Ismail to state again his new policy for comics at his restaurant, which he has renamed Zawa’s. “I don’t want you to go to tables picking on customers, don’t want any bad language. don’t want, what you say, someone with bad language, all this stuff.”

When you go to Zawa’s now, you can only hope to find the Corona beer as chilled as the free speech.

janefromvancouver is a contributor to the Downtown Eastside Enquirer blog

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