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a woman called incorrigible Velma Demerson

by Ruth Brown | March 21, 2005

One can walk the streets of Toronto, read newspapers, watch television and see that, today, interracial unions are commonplace and, for the most part, are accepted. Partners do not feel as much social pressure to give up or conceal their identity. Indeed there is acceptance for those who wish to integrate and celebrate both of their cultures. Programs and ads in the media include people of different cultural and racial heritages, and also partners in interracial and inter-cultural unions.

This was not always so. In the early 1920s and 1930s, vulnerable women who challenged societal expectations could face catastrophic consequences.

Velma Demerson was one of those women.

At that time, Ontario government policy included the Female Refuges (not refugees) Act. It decreed that an 18-year-old woman could make decisions about her own life with one unbelievable exception. If a parent considered a daughter to be “incorrigible” (not because of violent behaviour or concern that she was a danger to others, but because of a parental objection), she could be charged and brought to court as long as she was under the age of 21.

That is what happened to Velma Demerson in 1939. She was 18 years old and having a romantic relationship with a Chinese man. Her father, with Toronto police, entered her home. The officers seized her. She went to trial and was convicted of being incorrigible. When she was sentenced, Velma, knowing that she was pregnant, offered to marry her fiancé, Harry Yip. The judge rejected her suggestion. So much for judicial compassion.

Velma was sentenced to one year in the Belmont Home, where she was relatively well fed and safe. (Harry was never charged with anything.) Then the situation grew worse for Velma. The Belmont Home was closed and converted to a home for seniors. Forty-seven of the young women at Belmont were transferred to the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females.

The Mercer Reformatory was a jail where the young women from Belmont were incarcerated, demoralized and dehumanized. The Mercer’s own doctor was interested in research on glandular disorder of Mercer women that might be related to their “anti-social” and “criminal” acts. According to documents from 1928, found in the Women’s College Hospital archives, the doctor believed that the degree of abnormality would have to be determined by X-ray examinations of the skull and the contours of the skull.

At the Mercer Reformatory, even more sinister things took place. In the name of healing, some of the young women received what was called treatment – brutally and sadistically administrated – including dangerous surgery and excessively prescribed drugs. Pregnant Velma Demerson and other Mercer women were subjected to excruciating pain from surgery and regular drug overdoses.

While in Mercer, Velma gave birth to a son, Harry Junior, who was taken from her when he was just three months old and placed in the Hospital For Sick Children.

On release Velma married Harry Yip. Time passed, and the marriage ended. Their son drowned in a swimming accident when he was 26 years old.

Velma continued on with her life.

In 1964, a grand jury investigated the Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females. A Toronto Star journalist, Lotta Dempsey, reported the findings on November 5 of that year. Medical care was so bad that “we could find no one with anything good to say about it.” Training or rehabilitation was such a travesty “the name of the institution should be changed to jail, since it is in no sense a reform institution.” Dungeon-like basement “bucket cells” used for solitary confinement were 1.2 metres by just over 2 metres, and had no windows or any light.

Although the report of the grand jury was challenged, Dempsey wrote that Toronto Star files were “full or stories of escapes from Mercer, harsh treatment of expectant mothers, riots,” and more. There had been a cover-up of the real Mercer for years. Finally, in 1969, the Mercer Reformatory was closed.

One day in 1990, Velma walked into the storefront campaign office of David Reville, a provincial New Democratic Party candidate. After Velma had shared her story, Reville suggested that she go to Toronto’s Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and tell her story. There was a group interested in the history of Canadian psychiatry. They invited Velma to make a presentation. She spoke about her incarceration in the Mercer Reformatory.

In 1991, Velma was invited to speak at the Elizabeth Fry Society’s annual general meeting about her incarceration in the Mercer Reformatory.

At about this time, she started to research what had happened at the time of her arrest and imprisonment. Velma found an old newspaper article about the transfer of “girls” from the Belmont Home to the Mercer Reformatory, a move that ignored community protest at the time.

She went to the police station where she had been detained for a week and asked if they had any information on record about her. They didn’t, and suggested that she go to the Ontario archives instead.

At the Ontario archives, Velma asked for anything under her name. She was able to give them the date of her arrest. The archives confirmed Velma’s sentencing and incarceration at the Mercer Reformatory. The initials F.R.A. were there beside her name. She didn’t know what that meant. Velma soon found out – it stood for the Female Refuges Act.

This is how Velma learned the legal reason she had been detained and sentenced in 1939. She also learned that the Belmont Home was officially known as the Toronto Industrial Refuge. Finally, Velma discovered that both the Children’s Protection Act and the Ontario Training School Act referred to Section 17 of the Female Refuges Act. This was the section that said girls up to age 21, who were under the care of parents or guardians, could be declared incorrigible or unmanageable.

We know now of several Canadian men who were wrongly sentenced to years in prisons for murders they did not commit, and we celebrate their victories. But how many young women were unjustly identified as incorrigible and incarcerated and abused inside prison? They too have carried scars long after they left prison.

Ultimately, Velma negotiated a settlement with the Ontario Government.

In 2002, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Velma received the J.S.Woodsworth Award for anti-racism from the Ontario NDP Caucus.

Velma’s autobiography, Incorrigible, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press last year. Now she wants to share her success with others – to encourage women, especially older women, to write their stories, and to share their secrets.

Consider this story as an invitation from Velma Demerson, the survivor, to women: Come forth with your stories, no matter how old you are, and no matter how painful what you have to tell is. This is your time to write without fear. If you need and can get help from your children and/or grandchildren, do so. But you can manage alone if you have to. There is no shame. Break the silence you have lived with and write.

postscript

Be wary of anyone who tries to dismiss facts of history with the often-articulated phrase, “But consider the times.”

In spite of the racism and injustices of the 1930s, there were Canadians who were sensitive, compassionate and helpful. For example, in the October 1936 issue of the Presbyterian Church of Canada's publication The Glad Tidings, a number of women in Saskatoon and Prince Albert – most of whom were not Chinese themselves, but were married to Chinese men – “expressed appreciation for the church’s interest in them” and also voiced a desire to receive a visitor from the church who would not, as did others, “look down on us.”

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