As It Happens

Remembering Velma Demerson — the woman jailed in Toronto for living with her Chinese fiancé

Velma Demerson was a young woman in love with a baby on the way — and for that, she was jailed for nearly a year.  

Demerson, an author and lifelong social activist, died this month at the age of 98

Velma Demerson, a lifelong activist and author who fought to have the government acknowledge the injustice of the Ontario Female Refuges Act, died on May 13, 2019 at the age of 98. (Submitted by Karin Lee)
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Transcript

Velma Demerson was a young woman in love with a baby on the way — and for that, she was jailed for nearly a year.  

It was 1939 in Toronto and Demerson, a white woman, was engaged to Harry Yip, a Chinese man.

Police showed up at the couple's home in May 1939 and arrested the then-18-year-old under the Female Refuges Act of 1897, a since-repealed law that allowed authorities to jail women for "incorrigible" behaviour such as promiscuity, pregnancy out of wedlock and public drunkenness.

Demerson — who went on to become a social activist and author — died on May 13 in a Vancouver hospital, where she was being treated for throat cancer. She was 98. 

Karin Lee has spent the last three years working on a documentary about Demerson's life called Incorrigible.Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

When you first heard the story [of Demerson's arrest] for yourself, what did you think?

I was really just incredibly awestruck by the fact that somebody could be arrested like that as a young woman without any representation for being "incorrigible."

What happened to her? 

She was first sent to the Belmont home for girls and then a few months later she was transferred to the Mercer Reformatory for Women, which is basically like a federal prison for women.

Velma Demerson was incarcerated when she was 18 years old under a now-defunct Ontario law guarding against 'incorrigible' behaviour in women. (Submitted by Karin Lee)

She was pregnant at the time. What happened to her baby?

She gave birth to her baby while she was incarcerated. They transferred her to the Toronto General and that's where she gave birth, and then was transferred back to the Mercer Reformatory — but not before she actually ran away while she was at the hospital, without her baby, because she feared for her life and the pain that she would go through again if she was returned to the Mercer.

All of this flows from her falling in love with Harry Yip. ... Tell us about how she came to meet Harry and fall in love with him.

She was with her mother and a couple of other friends and they went to this Chinese café, and she thought he was a very cute waiter. So she kept dropping her silver to get his attention.

And finally he did pick it up and then he asked her for a date, and everybody was, like, happy about that. And then they went on some dates and she said that he was the most polite person and respectful person that she had ever met and just fell in love with him because he was such a decent guy — and good looking.

So who was it that decided that this should be shut down and that she should be arrested?

Her father, who was in New Brunswick at the time, was finally told by her mother, who was in Toronto — they had divorced by that time — that she was living with this Chinese man.

Outraged, he came right away and realized that he couldn't get Harry Yip arrested. And then he was told that they could arrest Velma for her own good. And so it was her father that brought the police to her apartment and had her arrested. 

What became of her after she was finally released?

As soon as she got out of jail, she immediately married Harry and they tried to raise their son.

But [the child] was affected by some of the medications that she was given ... so he had very extreme eczema, very severe eczema. 

And the social worker just came by and just said, "You know, you're just a child. There's no possible way that you can raise this kid."

So they took the kid away, and that was the beginning of a long struggle of trying to have her son in her possession [so] that she could raise [him].

[Editor's note: According to the Toronto Star, Demerson's son Harry Jr. was raised by a foster family in Ontario and died at the age of 26 after suffering an asthma attack while swimming.]

After Velma Demerson was released from prison, she lost custody of her child, Harry Jr. (Submitted by Karin Lee)

And she did live her life. She remarried, had another family. But at the same time, this haunted her, didn't it? She wanted some recognition of what had happened under this Female Refuges Act in Ontario. What did she learn about why she'd been arrested and what that act actually represented?

What she told me was when she turned 60, she finally found the time to sort of look inward and find out what happened to her. So she did a lot of research and found out that the Female Refuges Act was something that a lot of women had been arrested for. 

And then she went on to find a lawyer, and nobody in Toronto would take on her case.

And then she found a lawyer named Harry Kopyto who decided that he would do it even though he had no idea how he would help her in this case.

He got her an apology from the Ontario government and a pardon, didn't he? ... How hard was that?

He had found that there was a way in which he could say that her constitutional rights were violated, because under provincial law, they couldn't actually charge her with a criminal act because that's a federal responsibility.

But the thing that's so amazing about Velma was her tenacity to get justice not just for herself, but for all the women who were incarcerated under the Ontario Female Refuges act.

What was she like?

She was very kind. She was very funny. She laughed very easily.

But she was also very serious. We'd get together, and it was all about politics. You know, what this particular MP is doing, what is happening in the world. She had her own blog. I mean, she was like a Renaissance woman. Even though she was born in the 1920s, she was on social media. She kept going and writing letters and trying to get them to recognize the fact that this had happened not just to her, but to everybody else.

And she's been ignored by the Ontario government and also by the federal government, who said we take no responsibility for what Ontario did.

But she persevered.

She persevered. And I promised her I would try to carry on and, you know, preserve her legacy and get her story told. She was an incredibly inspirational woman and my only regret is I didn't get to know her earlier in her life.

Written by Sarah Jackson and Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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