Velma Demerson

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Velma Demerson (September 4, 1920 – May 13, 2019) was a Canadian woman who was imprisoned in 1939 in the province of Ontario for being in a relationship with a Chinese immigrant. She won an apology and compensation from the government when she was in her eighties, wrote a book about her experiences, and spent the latter part of her life campaigning for an apology and restitution for all women who had been incarcerated under the law that imprisoned her.

Early life[edit]

Demerson was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. After her parents divorced, she lived in Toronto with her mother in a rooming house on Church Street. Her mother supported them by managing the rooming house and reading tea leaves in the parlour under the name "Madam Alice". Her father remained in Saint John, where he was a restaurateur.[1] At the age of 18, she met Harry Yip in a Yonge Street cafe where he worked as a waiter. Finding him handsome, she attracted his attention and they began dating and she soon moved in with him.[1] When her father found out that she was involved with a Chinese man, he took a train from Saint John to Toronto in order to seek the intervention of the Toronto Police.[1]


Demerson, a white Canadian of European ancestry, was arrested at the home of her fiancé, Harry Yip, by two constables after they entered the apartment with her father yelling "that's her".[1] Pregnant with Yip's baby, she was convicted of being "incorrigible" under an 1897 law the Female Refuges Act. It allowed the government to arrest and institutionalize women between the ages of 16 and 35 for behaviour such as promiscuity, pregnancy out of wedlock, and public drunkenness. It was not repealed until 1964. Demerson was incarcerated at the Mercer Reformatory for Women in Toronto for a period of ten months.[1]

While incarcerated she gave birth to her son, Harry Jr., who at three months was taken away from her until her release. She was also subjected to several involuntary medical procedures by a 'reformatory' doctor, a leading eugenics practitioner searching for evidence of physical deficiencies contributing to the moral defectives of "unmanageable women".[2][3][4]

Upon her release from the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women in 1940, she married her fiancé, Yip, but the marriage ended in divorce three years later. She said that her son was subjected to constant racist insults and she moved to Hong Kong with him, hoping to shield him from bigotry. However, she found herself in financial distress and sent him back to Toronto to live with her father who, unable to care for him, gave him up to foster care. He became estranged from his mother and drowned in a swimming accident at the age of 26.[1]

Demerson returned to Canada and settled in Vancouver where she remarried and had a daughter and a son. After separating from her second husband she raised those two children as a single parent and worked as a secretary in government and legal offices until her retirement.[1]

Lost Canadian[edit]

Her marriage with Yip had committed an act which she soon found had stripped her of her Canadian citizenship under the 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act, in which woman who married a non-Canadian were deemed to have taken their husband's citizenship. However, an application for Chinese citizenship was denied by Chinese embassy officials and she remained officially stateless until 2004.[3] Under the terms of the 1947 Citizenship Act a woman who applied to have her citizenship returned would receive it. Velma Demerson applied on November 13, 1948. She was finger-printed and given a "Declaration of Intention" to sign. This was an incorrect form signed by at least four persons. She was denied citizenship.


After retiring, she moved back to Toronto in the late 1980s and began searching through government documents and researching her case in order to come to terms with what had happened to her in her youth. She ultimately sought out paralegal Harry Kopyto who became interested in her case and conducted legal research into the Female Refuges Act under which she imprisoned, and came to the conclusion that as a provincial law, it violated the Constitution by legislating in criminal law, which is an exclusively federal responsibility.[1]

In 2002, she sued the Ontario government for $11 million for pain and suffering during her incarceration. The Ontario Superior Court refused to hear the case, citing that the Ontario government is immune to lawsuits stemming from incidents prior to 1964. [5]

In late 2002 however, she settled out of court, receiving an apology from the Attorney-General of Ontario and financial compensation in an undisclosed amount from the provincial government.[2]

Demerson was one of the only survivors who, 60 years after her incarceration at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory in 1939, received compensation from the Ontario government. She was 81 by then.[5] In 2018, MP Hedy Fry apologised to her on behalf of the Canadian government for the loss of her citizenship.[1] Demerson return to Vancouver and died there in 2019.


In 2004, she wrote a book about the events, Incorrigible, a part of the Life Writing Series from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.[6] In 2002, she was awarded the J.S. Woodsworth Prize for anti-racism by the New Democratic Party of Canada.

She wrote a second book in 2017, Nazis in Canada, 1919-1939: A Satirical Novel Based on Actual Characters, a satirical novel based on her experiences in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women.[1]

She returned to British Columbia in 2018 and died in a Vancouver hospital on May 13, 2019, at the age of 98.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hunter, Paul (May 28, 2019). "'She never gave up': Torontowom having Chinese lover remembered crusader for justice". Toronto Star. Retrieved May 29, 2019.
  2. ^ a b "An Honest Woman". This Magazine. July–August 2005. Archived from the original on 2012-03-01. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  3. ^ a b "Lost Canadian Velma Demerson's tragic story of love and loss". Vancouver Observer. 28 February 2011. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b "Jailed as 'incorrigible' 60 years ago, woman wants compensation". CBC News. 7 October 2002. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  6. ^ Demerson, Velma (2004). Incorrigible. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 0-88920-444-6.

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