Velma Demerson (September 4, 1920 – May 13, 2019) was a Canadian woman who was imprisoned in 1939 for being in a relationship with a Chinese immigrant, Harry Yip.
She would go on to write the book “INCORRIGIBLE” in her 60’s about her experiences and spent the rest of her life campaigning for an apology and restitution for all women who had been incarcerated under the Female Refuges Act, the law that imprisoned her for being “incorrigible”. In her 90’s she also wrote and self published a historical fiction book “Nazis in Canada” about the doctor who performed unusual treatments on her and other women in the Mercer Reformatory for women.
Demerson won an apology and compensation from the government when she was in her 80’s.
Demerson was born in Vancouver, British Columbia to a family of European ancestry. After her parents divorced, she lived in Toronto in a rooming house on Church Street with her mother, who supported the family by managing the house and reading tea leaves in the parlour under the name “Madam Alice”. Her father remained in Saint John where he ran a restaurat.
At the age of 18, Demerson met Harry Yip in a Yonge Street café where he worked as a waiter. They began dating and she soon moved in with him. When her father found out that she was involved with a Chinese man, he took a train from Saint John to Toronto in order to seek the intervention of the Toronto Police.
Demerson was arrested at the home of her fiancé, Harry Yip, by two constables after they entered the apartment with her father who stated “that’s her.” Pregnant with Yip’s baby, she was convicted of being “incorrigible” under an 1897 law the Female Refuges Act.
This Ontario law, which was not repealed until 1964, allowed the government to arrest and institutionalize women between the ages of 16 and 35 for such behaviour as promiscuity, pregnancy out of wedlock, public drunkenness, prostitution, or vagrancy. Demerson was incarcerated at the Mercer Reformatory for Women in Toronto for ten months for consorting with a Chinese man.
While incarcerated she gave birth to her son, Harry Jr., who at 3 months was taken away from her until her release. She was also subjected to several involuntary medical procedures by a reformatory doctor, a leading eugenics practitioner searching for evidence of physical deficiencies contributing to the moral defectives of “unmanageable women.”
Upon her release from the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women in 1940, she married Yip, though the marriage ended in divorce 3 years later. Frustrated that her son was also subject to racial taunting at school, she took him to Hong Kong to avoid bigotry, obtaining work teaching English and shorthand to Chinese students. However, she found herself in financial distress and sent him back to Toronto, to live with his father, who was unable to care for him and work, gave him up to foster care.
Demerson returned to Canada and worked as a waitress, and continued to see her son regularly, but he became attached to his foster mother and the stability her home provided. Her husband Harry Yip disappeared.
She gave up hope of reuniting the family, and she fled to Vancouver, joined political groups and became involved in the Peace movement and protests during the Vietnam War. Her son became estranged from her, and later died at the age of 26 of an asthma attack while swimming, which crushed Demerson who had tried to maintain a relationship with him. In Vancouver, she had remarried and had a daughter and a son. After later separating from her second husband, she continued to raise the now two older children as a single parent and worked as a secretary until her retirement.
Lost Canadian Citizenship
Demerson later learned that because of her marriage to Yip she had lost her Canadian citizenship. Under the 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act, women who married a non-Canadian were deemed to have taken their husband’s citizenship. She applied for for Chinese citizenship, but was denied by Chinese embassy officials. She remained officially stateless until 2004. Under the terms of the Act, a woman who applied to have her citizenship returned would receive it. Demerson applied on 13 November 1948 but was refused reinstatement of her citizenship. Later she was able to get a birth certificate with her maiden name and acquired citizenship.
After retiring, Demerson moved back to Toronto in the late 1980s and began searching through government documents and researching her case in order to come to terms with what had happened to her in her youth, and where she wrote the book “Incorrigible” about her experience. She ultimately sought out paralegal Harry Kopyto, who became interested in her case and conducted legal research into the Female Refuges Act under which she imprisoned. Kopyto came to the conclusion that, as a provincial law, it violated the Constitution by legislating in criminal law, which is an exclusively federal responsibility.
In 2002, Demerson sued the Ontario government for $11 million for the pain and suffering during her incarceration. The Ontario Superior Court refused to hear the case, citing that the Ontario government is immune to lawsuits stemming from incidents prior to 1964. Later that year, however, she settled out of court, receiving an apology from the Attorney-General of Ontario and financial compensation in an undisclosed amount from the provincial government.
Later life and publications
Demerson was one of the only survivors of the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women who, 60 years after her incarceration at the Reformatory in 1939, received compensation from the Ontario government at the age of 81. She was never able to find other women who had been at the Mercer Reformatory, despite researching the inmates from the archives, and even through all the publicity she received.
In 2002, she was awarded the J.S. Woodsworth Prize for anti-racism by the New Democratic Party of Canada. In 2018, Member of Parliament Hedy Fry apologised to her on behalf of the Canadian government for the loss of her citizenship. She relocated back to Vancouver, then, again later returned to Toronto to research the Eugenicist doctor and over several more years wrote the book “Nazis in Canada” about that doctor’s life and how she was able establish a position as a head doctor in the Mercer Reformatory, with government approval, where she was able to conduct invasive, painful treatments on inmates without being scrutinized, and do her Eugenic research. Demerson returned to British Columbia in 2018 where her adult children lived, at 97, and died in a Vancouver hospital on May 13, 2019, at the age of 98.
2004. Incorrigible, Life Writing series. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 0-88920-444-6.
1. Hunter, Paul (May 28, 2019). “‘She never gave up’: Toronto woman having Chinese lover remembered crusader for justice”. Toronto Star. Retrieved May 29, 2019.
3. ^ Jump up to: a b “Lost Canadian Velma Demerson’s tragic story of love and loss”. Vancouver Observer. 28 February 2011. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
5. ^ Jump up to: a b “Jailed as ‘incorrigible’ 60 years ago, woman wants compensation”. CBC News. 7 October 2002. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
7. ^ “Justice For Velma: The Friends of Velma Committee Newsletter” Winter 2002.
8. ^ CBC Radio. 2019 May 29. “Remembering Velma Demerson — the woman jailed in Toronto for living with her Chinese fiancé.” CBC News.
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