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On a May morning in 1939, eighteen-year-old Velma Demerson and her lover were having breakfast when two police officers arrived to take her away. Her crime was loving a Chinese man, a “crime” that was compounded by her pregnancy and subsequent mixed-race child. Sentenced to a home for wayward girls, Demerson was then transferred (along with forty-six other girls) to Torontos Mercer Reformatory for Females. The girls were locked in their cells for twelve hours a day and required to work in the on-site laundry and factory. They also endured suspect medical examinations. When Demerson was finally released after ten months’ incarceration weeks of solitary confinement, abusive medical treatments, and the state’s apprehension of her child, her marriage to her lover resulted in the loss of her citizenship status.
This is the story of how Demerson, and so many other girls, were treated as criminals or mentally defective individuals, even though their worst crime might have been only their choice of lover. Incorrigible is a survivor’s narrative. In a period that saw the rise of psychiatry, legislation against interracial marriage, and a populist movement that believed in eradicating disease and sin by improving the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock, Velma Demerson, like many young women, found herself confronted by powerful social forces. This is a history of some of those who fell through the cracks of the criminal code, told in a powerful first-person voice.
About Velma Demerson
Velma Demerson is a widow, and mother of three children—the first child, the son of her interracial marriage, died at age twenty-six. She has worked throughout her life in a variety of positions, mostly as a secretary for governments (provincial and federal) and lawyers. She is self-educated. This is her first book.
“Demerson’s spare, unadorned account of the injustice done her is moving and courageous.”
— Brian Bethune, Maclean’s
“Velma Demerson’s new memoir, Incorrigible, recounts in horrifying detail being imprisoned in 1939 under the Female Refuges Act...It’s a straightforward and at times brutally graphic account of her travails.”
— Andrea Baillie, The Star Phoenix (Saskatoon, SK)
“Velma Demerson’s story remains an inspiration to tackle obstacles, and a reminder that we’re not alwasy as tolerant as we think we are.”
“There is only one reaction to this sad storyЛa mixture of outrage, fury and shame.... Incorrigible, I believe, should be mandatory reading in every Women’s Studies course in the land.”
— Clara Thomas, Canadian Woman Studies
“Others have written about the origins of legislation like the Female Refuges Act, about criminal court process at the lower levels of the system, and about the ideologies and routines of prisons and reformatories. But it is rare indeed to find material about any of these things written from unofficial sources and so unremittingly fromt the point of view of those subjected to the law. If [Demerson’s] account of the court hearings (if they can be called that0 is at all accurate, they represent a complete railroading of the defendant....In a series of chapters Demerson also gives us an excellent, and harrowing, description of life at the Mercer....The subject which looms largest...and which unquestionably is most disturbing to the reader, is her account of the medical ‘treatments’ to which she was subjected.”
— Jim Phillips, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada
“There are few chapters in Canadian legal history as shameful as the Female Refuges Act. Targeting young women—often already marginalized by class and “race”—for supposed “immoral” behaviour, the act ignored many basic principles of evidence and fair trial, leaving women at the mercy of a law profoundly shaped by sexist and racist assumptions. Women were incarcerated in correctional institutions, where they experienced a daily regime of shame and punishment. Velma Demerson’s courageous battle to expose this blatant injustice should be commended. By offering her own story, she has done an immeasureable service that will hopefully sharpen public awareness of current injustices.”
— Joan Sangster, teaches at Trent University, Peterborough, and is the author of Regulating Girls and Women: Sexuality, Family, and the Law in Ontario, 1920-1960 and Girl Trouble: Female Delinquency in English Canada
“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....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....By bringing this disgraceful chapter of our history to light, Velma Demerson has demonstrated tremendous courage.”
— Scott Piatkowski, THIS Magazine
“On the morning of May 3, 1939, a young Toronto couple, he in robe, she in pyjamas, had their morning meal stopped cold. “Police. Open up.”...
[In] the courthouse, the judge makes haste: “You are charged with being ’incorrigible’ and I sentence you to one year in the Belmont House.” The off-hand sentence cost Demerson dearly. Under the Female Refuges Act, the province of Ontario from 1896-1964 arrested and jailed, without trial or appeal, females from 16 to 35 whom magistrates suspected of undesirable social behaviour....
Demerson had two strikes against her. Her fiance was Harry Yip. At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade white women even to work in Chinese establishments, never mind have intimate relationships and subsequent mixed-race babies. The authorities were not alone in this judgement, nor were they alone the morning of the arrest. At their side was Demerson’s father....
[In the book] I’ve underscored text for socio-historic weight, poignant emotional recall and graphic detail....It’s intense and I take breaks. Rarely does a book make me cry; this one makes me sob. Angry? I’m irate....
The young mother deemed “unfit” decades earlier came back, in her 70s and 80s, ready to fight. And won. In 2002, Attorney-General David Young apologized on behalf of the government for “unfortunate and unjustified consequences for you and other women who were unjustifiably incarcerated.”...Author, advocate, whistle-blower and role-model, at a sprightly 84, Demerson can not only still kick parliamentary ass but has written a provocative, informative work to resonate for generations to come.”
— Maggie Mortimer, The Globe and Mail
“Incorrigible describes in heart-rending detail the events leading up to the author’s incarceration, her harrowing experiences while confined, her eventual release, and her relationship with her beloved son, Harry Yip. Demerson’s powerful first-person account documents a shameful period in Canadian history, a time when outrageous abuses of power were committed in the name of social progress.”
— Beryl Hamilton, Canadian Book Review Annual
“Any thinking person should be outraged by the issue raised by Ms. Demerson.”
— David Suzuki
“The book, which made our reviewer weep, is a searing indictment of a time and attitude we would do well not to forget.”
— The Globe 100, Globe and Mail
“Stories of rebels and outlaws have always been popular subjects for scholarly and popular histories. Those who have had their stories dramatized in plays, television shows, and on film, and even more so those who have published their memoirs, are overwhelmingly men. Here we see the memoir of a defiant woman in a moving account that could only have been a woman’s life story. Historians interested in recovering the experiences of people without access to formal avenues of power typically search in vain for the sort of material presented in this book — an insider’s look at the regulation and punishment of working-class women who strayed from the moral scripts of gender and race.”
— Carolyn Strange, author of Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 and co-author (with Tina Loo) of True Crime, True North: The Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines (2004).
“A great read for those interested in legal history, and a reminder that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.”
— The Barrister (Alberta Civil Trial Lawyers Association)