Interview with Velma Demerson
Why did you come back after 50 years to look into something that happened so long ago. What did you hope to accomplish?
There was conflict in my mind that had never been resolved. When I retired I had time to look into what I believed was an injustice. You might say that the past haunted me. I felt I could have done better, that I’d made mistakes that could have been avoided if I hadn’t been imprisoned. When I was a young woman I was been rendered completely helpless and I think such an experience makes a person more fearful and less able to make decisions. I knew there had been deception because my medical experience wasn’t normal. And of course I knew that my arrest was connected to my involvement with a Chinese man, that it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So, I always knew that racism was involved, that I had not done anything wrong. The question “why” haunted me. I had to try to find out.
Some people would say that the past is gone, we have so many things to take care of in the present.
It seems to me that our connection with the past begins when we’re born. We’re born into a culture with attitudes we absorb. We soon
learn that our parents and other authorities have control over us. We learn to
fear consequences, respect the law, even if the laws are unjust.
The traces of discrimatory laws that
existed against women and foreigners, especially the Chinese (during the
early twentieth century), still persist in the form of violence against
women and racism. There are still laws that affect women negatively, for instance, solicitation laws, and a law that removed a Canadian-born woman’s
citizenship if she married a foreigner earlier in the century. After 1947,
a woman had to apply to reinstate her lost citizenship, there was no
amnesty. Canadian-born women are still coming forward to request their
Canadian citizenship. Women who went overseas with their husbands before
1947 have difficulty getting back into Canada; it’s claimed they owe
allegiance to another country. One of the worst pieces of legislation that
affected women was Ontario’s Female Refuges Act, where at least hundreds
of women were falsely imprisoned for up to two years. It was removed in
1964 after women had suffered the loss of their children and other
The present and the past are inseparable as long as we’re alive. Right now Sandra Murray, a former training school girl, is appealing her case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and I have Intervenor Status, that is, I’m joining Ms Murray before the Court. We are opposing an Ontario provincial government decision that the government cannot be sued for anything that happened before September, 1963. I cannot think of anything more discriminatory against the elderly than denying them the rights given to younger members of society.
Your book is partly an account of trauma—the trauma of being incarcerated but also the literal violence that was done to you physically in the name of medical “science.” How important is it for young people to know about this history?
It’s important to know that refuges even existed, especially since today there’s a move on to put young women into safe houses which are akin to refuges. Could they be transferred to a reformatory, maybe, depending on new legislation that could be brought in? I want people, both young and not-so-young, to know how institutions can have power, and can instill fear. When I was young I was in fear most of the time. It’s a feeling that the world around you is unsafe, something like a mental breakdown I suppose where a person can’t concentrate on any one thing. We know from recent accounts of political prisoners being tortured that physical and psychological violence are connected and they have a devastating effect on a person. One of the things I’m trying to bring out is that while the designation of “feebleminded” was an excuse to lock women up right up until 1956, venereal disease was an excuse to lock them up until the 1980s. It seems that the way to control the minds of the people is through fear.
What are your plans now?
The provincial government has apologized to me, my husband, and son for my imprisonment under the Female Refuges Act; I am in negotiations with the government to ascertain what the implications of such an apology might be. Just as the Female Refuges Act is being recognized as a terrible injustice against women, the prejudicial Chinese Head Tax needs to be addressed. I am still exploring the effects of past iniquitous laws and how they represent certain damaging beliefs in society. This helps to explain continued racism against visible minorities and violence against women. I would like to press for a more open access to documents in the Archives of Ontario.