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Toronto woman was jailed for living with her boyfriend in 1939


On May 3 of that year, 18-year-old Velma Demerson had been enjoying breakfast with her fiancé — Harry Yip — when there was banging on the door of their downtown rented room.

Two police officers and Demerson’s grim-faced father barged in.

“Is that her?” She recalled one police officer asking her father. “Yes, that’s her,” came the answer. Police took Demerson away and she was soon before a judge who was told that she’d been found wearing pyjamas in a room with Yip, who was wearing a bathrobe.

The judge asked if she was pregnant and she said, yes, and pleaded to be freed so she could marry Yip, as they had planned. Instead, the judge remanded her for a week before sentencing and she was packed off to the Don Jail, forced to sleep on a bench without a blanket.

She was never read her rights or offered a lawyer.

It was not explained at the time, but Demerson had been picked up under Ontario’s Female Refuges Act (1897-1964), used to arrest and imprison women from ages 15 to 35 if they were found begging, drunk or were suspected of leading “an idle or dissolute life.” Anyone could make such a charge. Judges were only required to make “reasonable inquiry into the truth.”

The act also specified that a parent or guardian of a female, under age 21, who was “unmanageable” could have that person brought before a judge. If found “incorrigible,” the female was sent to an “industrial refuge” (a place often run by religious groups, where women were confined, given moral direction and put to work for up to two years). The act was amended in 1939 to allow any “incorrigible” woman to also be sent to Toronto’s Mercer Reformatory for Females (Canada’s first women’s prison). 

Now 96, and living in Toronto, Demerson still finds it incredible that so many girls and women were deprived of their freedom under a provincial act “that was illegal . . . all those years they got away with it,” she told the Star in an interview. There’s nothing in the Criminal Code about “unmanageable or incorrigible” women, she says. And she wonders why Ottawa allowed it. “I’d like to have the federal government look at this . . . admit responsibility.”  

But at the time of her arrest, Demerson had no idea what was going on and was not offered any means to contact anyone. She knew her fiancé couldn’t help her. In 1939 Toronto, as in other parts of Canada, discrimination against Chinese residents was a fact of life — there was even a provincial law prohibiting white women from working in businesses run by Chinese men.

“A Chinese man can hardly come looking for a white woman without endangering himself,” Demerson wrote in her 2004 book about her ordeal, Incorrigible. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press.)

Demerson had been living with her divorced mother when she started going out with Yip, a restaurant waiter, about a year before her arrest. When her father, a New Brunswick businessman, heard she had moved in with a Chinese man, he took the train to Toronto.

Demerson speculated in her book that when her father went to police they likely filled his head with “warnings about white slavery, vice and drugs . . . He’s afraid that my association with a Chinese man will bring disgrace to his family.”  

Demerson returned to court on May 10 and the judge pronounced her “incorrigible” and sentenced her to one year in the city’s “Belmont Home,” an industrial refuge run by Protestant church women. There were about 60 other “incorrigible” young women confined at the home, including a 14-year-old victim of incest. Because Demerson was pregnant, she did light housekeeping, while most women did laundry.

In her book, Demerson called it a “tolerable confinement.” One volunteer told her that the home was so much better than the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, which opened in 1872 as the first women’s prison in Canada and was a “house of horrors.”

The truth of that description would soon become apparent. At the end of June, the women were told the home was closing and most were being transferred to the notorious Mercer.

“All of us were in shock,” Demerson told the Star.

At the Mercer Reformatory, now the site of Lamport Stadium on King St. W., the women were put into windowless, one-by-two-metre, cockroach-ridden cells, with buckets for toilets. Reading materials and clocks were not allowed. Inmates spent all day at sewing machines and were only allowed to talk to each other for 30 minutes a day.

Demerson was forced to submit to frequent, painful internal exams and unexplained procedures by the Mercer’s Dr. Edna Guest, a eugenicist who supported sterilization of the “unfit.” She was given a variety of medications. The contents or effects were not explained.

She was allowed to go to Toronto General Hospital to give birth. Shortly after mother and son returned to the Mercer, Guest was replaced by a new doctor. He asked Demerson about her future plans.

She recalled the conversation in her book: “I’m going to marry the father of my baby.”

“Why are you throwing yourself away?” he said.

“Do you mean because he’s Chinese?”

Well, yes,” the doctor responded.

On March 1, 1940, Demerson was released. She and Yip married. By marrying an “alien” she lost her Canadian citizenship.

The emotional cost of her ordeal, the baby’s severe eczema and the expensive medicines treatment required, took a toll on the marriage. It ended after three years and they lost contact. Demerson struggled to care for her son, but by the age of 12, he had become a ward of the Children’s Aid. Tragically, he drowned at age 25.

The Mercer Reformatory was closed and demolished in 1969, years after a damning 1964 Grand Jury investigation which found shocking conditions, including hidden basement cells used for solitary confinement. “Girls’ jail shocks grand jury” was the headline on the front page of the Nov. 5, 1964 Star.

Meanwhile, Demerson married a second time and had two more children. Widowed, and in her 60s, she started investigating what had happened in 1939, researching at the Ontario Archives. That’s when she realized there was no Criminal Code offence of “incorrigibility,” the basis for jailing women.

“It hit me — they had no right to do this,” she told the Star.

She also discovered from a report in the archives that she was used in a drug study at the Mercer without her knowledge.

At age 81, Demerson sued the Ontario government for $ 11 million and asked for an apology. In December 2002, she got a letter of apology from the Ontario attorney-general for being “unjustifiably incarcerated” under the FRA and for its “adverse effects” on Demerson, Harry Yip and their son, Harry. Later the province gave her an undisclosed monetary settlement.

Velma Demerson has written a satirical novel based on her experiences at the Mercer called Nazis in Canada. A launch party will take place July 26, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Another Story Bookshop, 315 Roncesvalles Ave.

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