1939. Canada and the World are on the brink of war fighting for freedom on a global scale; but in Toronto, an antiquated law will ruin a young woman’s life forever.
Doing research for my book, I stumbled upon the late 19th Century Female Refuge’s Act which was a ridiculous attempt to clean up the streets of women of dubious moral character.
Without any real substantiation, a woman could be tried (without representation and often just on the witness account of one man alone ) and imprisoned should she be deemed incorrigible. It seemed, often, that petty theft was less of a crime than women who were suspected of vagrancy. A woman walking alone at night or with a too-short hem or with a few mistakes in her past or with parents who deemed her unruly could be sequestered in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory. Public drunkenness which would merely illicit a sneer and maybe a bit of a rough warning for a man was an imprisonable offense for a woman as was carrying a child out of wedlock. If you were an unmarried woman between the ages of 16 and 35, deemed in your prime childbearing years, you were never truly safe.
18 year old Velma Demerson had two strikes against her when she was hauled off to court and thus to prison: she was carrying an illigetimate baby and her fiance was a Chinese immigrant. What happened to her at the Mercer Reformatory is a bleak and horrific tale of a justice system rife with double-standards, unspeakable loop-holes and atrocious treatment of women as inferiors.
Velma’s life story, Incorrigible, is told in a brusque, frantic and extremely honest manner. Candid. Frenetic. Intense. She didn’t hold anything back as she expelled her tale of shame, embarrassment and harassment in a city that always prides itself on its treatment of minorities and social consciousness. While she uses the space of her memoir to extrapolate her history and her parent’s dysfunctional relationship as well as her burgeoning feelings for Harry Yip, another social “other” with whom she connected and fell in love, she also provides first-hand evidence to appalling eugenics testing the inmates at the Mercer were forced to undergo in an attempt to link physical ailment and attribute to moral degeneracy.
In a stomach-turning and appallingly forceful truth, Demerson’s life story forced me to confront the inhumane and objectified treatment of women in recent history. While the Canadian government (years later) offered restitution and compensation, the emotional turmoil and abject humiliation Demerson suffered was keenly felt by me. Moreover, she explores the ramifications of the criminal acts against her in the illness her baby suffers from ( she has him while still under custody) and the disintegration of her relationship with her eventual husband whose union with her forced her to renounce Canadian citizenship and identify Chinese.
It’s almost baffling to recognize that her story has been swept under the carpet while history classes teach of Canadian’s exceptional war involvement. We are so quick to pride ourselves on our racial and moral and social tolerance and yet the Female Refuges Act was not relinquished until 1967.
Demerson’s story is not the only one silenced, broken by her brave activism and her desire to speak out; but it is a staunch and needed representation of a voiceless tribe of women who were brutally treated, tortured and held down: often on circumspect and faulty charge.
WARNING: This is a very graphic and disturbing story and any prospective reader should know that in order to speak truth, Demerson has to go into graphic and disturbing detail.
Read more about Velma here
Can I ask you a question not really (but a little bit) related to this post. I'm going to Toronto this summer (July) and as I know you are passionate about the history about your city and I'm a big fan of history in general I wondered if you had any tips for things to visit or do in Toronto, perhaps a guided walk or something?
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