Demerson, 18 and pregnant, was taken away in a police car, arrested because she was a Caucasian woman consorting with a Chinese man.
It was May of 1939 and pre-war Toronto attitudes toward ethnicity, poverty and sexuality meant a woman could lose her freedom if she was deemed immoral by authorities — or even her family.
Demerson would spend the next 10 months incarcerated because she’d fallen in love with the wrong man.
An outspoken link to that era, Demerson died on May 13 at a Vancouver hospital. She was 98, and had been battling throat cancer.
More than 60 years after being whisked away by police, Demerson — who would become an author, social activist and frequent school lecturer — won an apology from the Ontario government for herself, her husband and son Harry Jr. for the way they were treated.
“It was a really racist society,” Demerson once recalled of pre-war Toronto. “We were ostracized. We just walked on certain streets, not in the better places, so to speak, because people would look at you … And they always look at the woman and figure she’s an immoral character.”
The Great Depression still lingered during that uneasy spring of 1939 and the drumbeats of a coming world war were unmistakable. Demerson lived with her divorced mother in a Church St. rooming house. Mom ran the home, accommodating anyone including sex workers, and also read tea leaves in the parlour as Madam Alice.
Velma met a handsome waiter at a Yonge St. café — repeatedly dropping her cutlery until he took notice — and she came to enjoy the relative tranquillity of his Walton St. room. It wasn’t long before they were living together there.
When Demerson’s father, a restaurateur in Saint John, N.B., learned of this, he took a train to seek help from the Toronto police. Demerson said her dad considered it a disgrace that she planned to marry a Chinese immigrant and “worse, provide him with a Chinese grandchild.”
A provincial law at the time, the Female Refuges Act of 1897, made Demerson vulnerable. Promiscuity, being “illegitimately” pregnant and consorting willingly with a Chinese man were all punishable with imprisonment under the broad strokes of the act. Anyone could make a charge against a woman between 15 and 35 who was suspected of leading “an idle or dissolute life” and judges need only make “reasonable inquiry into the truth.”
The law also allowed a parent to have a daughter under 21 brought before a judge if she was “unmanageable.” If she was deemed “incorrigible” she could be confined in an industrial refuge, a place typically operated by religious groups, to work and receive moral recalibrating.
Picked up in Yip’s room, Demerson was whisked to Old City Hall court. There, without being offered a lawyer, she told a judge she was three months pregnant and planned to marry Yip. She hoped that might ease the situation. It did the opposite. After a week at the Don Jail, she was sentenced to a year at Belmont Home, a workhouse in Yorkville where the women did laundry, without pay, for the city’s hospitals. Because she was expecting, Demerson was mostly tasked with light housekeeping.
Six weeks later, Belmont closed and 47 women were moved to Andrew Mercer Reformatory, Canada’s first women’s prison, where they were locked up for 12 hours each night, in cramped, cockroach-infested, windowless cells with a pail for a toilet. During the day, the inmates, some as young as 14, worked in a sewing factory and were only allowed to converse for 30 minutes after lunch and an hour at night.
Not only were the women treated like hardened criminals at Mercer, Demerson says she was given unknown injections and subject to frequent gynecological exams. The prison’s female doctor was a eugenicist who believed disease could be eradicated by maintaining the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock and sterilizing the morally defective and unfit. Demerson also had her newborn baby taken from her, and placed in a hospital, until her release some 10 months into her sentence.
“It’s a well-hidden, ugly story about our past in Canada,” says Vancouver filmmaker Karin Lee, who is making a documentary about Demerson, noting that there were people in positions of power that actively worked to block the mixing of races in the country.
“Today, you can’t imagine that would be a criminal act and that only women would be incarcerated,” says Lee, who is crowdfunding to finish the film.
After her release, Demerson’s life unfolded like a sweeping epic. At one point, she moved her son to Hong Kong to escape discrimination here. She followed him and taught English. Under financial stress in Asia, she sent Harry Jr. home to his father, who she had married in 1940. But when she came home the boy was a ward of Children’s Aid.
Demerson and Yip divorced. Still feeling ostracized in Toronto, Demerson started a new life in British Columbia, where she remarried, took her husband’s surname of Lakes, and started a new family. When her son opted to remain with a foster family in Ontario, she was devastated. Harry Jr. died at the age of 26 when he suffered an asthma attack while swimming alone.
Although Demerson’s marriage to Yip didn’t last, she’d lost her rights as a Canadian by marrying an “alien.” Women who married a non-Canadian were deemed to assume their husband’s citizenship. Demerson remained stateless until 2004, when she became a Canadian citizen.
After separating from her second husband, Demerson raised a daughter and son as a single parent in Vancouver. She also took secretarial courses and began working in law offices. She could easily have been forgotten in Ontario. But in the late 1980s, at 67 she returned to Toronto to research documents about her young life and her “hazy past.”
“The more research she did, the more angry she got over what happened to her,” said Lee.
A four-foot-11 dynamo driven to seek justice, she connected with paralegal Harry Kopyto, who helped her develop a strategy to seek redress. Kopyto determined that the Ontario government had exceeded its jurisdiction by instituting a criminal law with such severe punishment. (The Female Refuges Act was abolished in 1964.)
In her fight for an apology, Kopyto says Demerson became a “cause célèbre beyond imagination” backed by human rights groups, prisoner advocacy foundations, feminists, politicians, academics and the Chinese community. The Ontario government finally “caved,” he said, settling out of court.
In 2002, Ontario attorney general David Young issued an apology to Demerson for being “unjustifiably incarcerated” and for its “adverse effects” on her, Yip and their late son. Demerson also filed an $11-million suit against the province and received an undisclosed settlement.
Kopyto says her primary goal was to “clear the dark mark off her reputation.”
“This thing had burned away at her for half a century and she needed to put it to peace,” said Kopyto. “She felt completely vindicated. She became energized and renewed in her interest to help other people who were treated the way she was as well as others who were facing different problems because of government action or inaction.”
In 2018, Don Chapman, founder of the advocacy group Lost Canadians, arranged for Demerson to meet Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry and two other federal politicians. Fry warmly clutched Demerson’s right hand in both of hers and said: “I bring you the apology from the government of Canada for taking away your citizenship, for having been imprisoned … ”
Demerson wrote the book Incorrigible, an unflinching and moving account of her life, in 2004. At 97, she finished Nazis in Canada, a self-published satirical novel based on her experiences at Belmont House and the Mercer Reformatory.
In her later years, Demerson became a tireless advocate for social justice. She spoke often at schools and community gatherings about human rights and recounted how her life was affected by racism and oppressive government policies. At the age of 95, she moved back to Toronto on her own — finding an apartment on Craig’s List — and did more archival research into how the inmates were treated at Mercer (near King and Dufferin Sts., where Lamport Stadium now stands), which had been shut down and demolished in 1969. A 1964 grand jury investigation found abhorrent conditions at the prison including hidden basement cells used for solitary confinement.
Demerson also continued to lobby both the provincial and federal governments to apologize to every woman affected by the Female Refuges Act.
“That’s the kind of person she was,” said Lee, the filmmaker. “She was an activist and she knew the apology to one person wasn’t right.”
Demerson moved back to Vancouver early in 2018, but her daughter Sylvia Lakes said she continued searching for former Mercer inmates she might help.