An Honest Woman
Velma Demerson’s sadly compelling book uncovers the dark side of Canada’s human-rights record
BY Scott Piatkowski
The year was 1939, and Velma Demerson was 18 and in love. It could very well have been the basis for the plot of an eve-of-war romance novel. But this love story took a shameful and sinister turn. Because Demerson’s then-fiancé, Harry Yip, was Chinese-Canadian, her love was not only frowned upon by both society and her family, but subject to criminal penalty.
“My fiancé and I are in similar situations,” she writes in Incorrigible (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). “Maybe that’s what attracts us to each other. He’s an outcast by virtue of his race. But I am also the object of discrimination. Because of my mother’s divorce I am, like him, excluded from the world of stable conforming families. The Chinese have been singled out by government legislation as undesirable and their families in China can’t join them in Canada. Most of the Chinese here are men without mates and friendship with Canadian women is discouraged. By statute the Chinese are singled out as the only people in Canada who cannot employ white women. My fiancé and I are lonely people who have found each other. We share the same enemies.”
At the initiative of her parents (who agreed on little, but were apparently able to agree on the humiliation of their daughter), a pregnant Demerson was arrested and jailed under an archaic bit of legislation called the Female Refuges Act. The law—passed in 1897 and not repealed until 1964—was one of the uglier and longest-standing manifestations of the eugenics movement, as well as the general sexism of the era. Without a proper trial or legal representation, Demerson was convicted of being “incorrigible.” She was locked away for a total of 10 months, during which time she gave birth to her son, Harry Jr.
Demerson was subjected to horrifying medical abuses at the Mercer Ontario Reformatory, in Toronto, including a series of painful vaginal surgeries performed without anesthetic. She later learned that the doctor who administered the torture was once vice-president of Canada’s leading eugenics organization. “From the point of view of the eugenicists,” notes Demerson, “most of the women at the Mercer Reformatory were incurable moral degenerates due to inbred character defects.” To prove it, doctors at Mercer performed surgeries searching for “the physical basis of mental deficiencies…” she writes. “Moral defectives could thus be linked, not only by observation, but by physical abnormality.”
After being released in 1940, Demerson married Yip—an act that officially stripped her of her Canadian citizenship. But their relationship never fully recovered and ended in acrimony. Moreover, due to a series of legal and financial challenges—most of them related to her scandalous treatment by authorities—Demerson eventually lost custody of her son. He was declared a ward of the state and was raised by an acquaintance of her husband. He was still estranged from his mother when he drowned at 26. “I learn that Harry had erased all reference to his mother and father and presented himself as a foundling…” Demerson writes. “No one knew that his mother was white.”
Demerson’s sadly compelling book is part of the Life Writing Series from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Like most of the writers in this series, she’s a first-timer. Whatever the book lacks in terms of rhetorical polish, it more than makes up for in the powerful nature of her first-person account and the sheer number of minute details she is able to draw from memory. We learn, for example, that the entrance to the reformatory “is immense with shining hardwood floors…. There’s a wide doorway to the right. To the left is a hallway. There are no furnishings, not a clock or a chair. The absence of a clock disturbs me as I contemplate timeless, meaningless days.”
Canada’s political leaders like to tout our country’s “well-deserved reputation for tolerance.” They are less eager to discuss whether that reputation is wholly deserved, or whether there are major blotches on our human-rights record. Based on the cruel and degrading experiences of Velma Demerson and other women imprisoned for “vagrancy” or for simply being “incorrigible,” Canada in the 1930s and 1940s was far less idyllic than what is portrayed in the history books.
In 2002—more than 60 years after she was sent to jail—the Ontario government finally paid undisclosed compensation to Demerson and issued a flaccid apology that would be too little, too late. Demerson is surprisingly lacking in bitterness, though. “I feel fortunate to be a survivor,” she notes in the afterword. In turn, we can feel fortunate she has chosen to tell the story of her survival. Surely it would have been easier to keep quiet and internalize the shame associated with her imprisonment and the loss of her child. Presumably most of the victims of this oppressive legislation did exactly that. By bringing this disgraceful chapter of our history to light, Velma Demerson has demonstrated tremendous courage.