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By Velma Demerson
Subjects Political Science, Social Policy, Biography & Autobiography, Social Science, Women’s Studies
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9780889204447, 172 pages, December 2004
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554586677, 172 pages, October 2009
Audiobook : 9781554587520, 172 pages, October 2020

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Excerpt from Incorrigible by Velma Demerson

Chapter 1

As the car turns into the driveway, I see the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females as a dark formidable fortress pencilled black against the white sky. The enormous structure with its jutting turrets appears to stretch an entire city block. It casts a shadow over the grassy exterior extending to a wide spiked iron fence and onto the street beyond. The tall steeple gives a church-like appearance but the numerous iron-barred windows embedded in the dark stone exterior frighten me.

The building is distant from the street but as we draw near I can see the women who were at the Belmont Home with me leave the other car and move toward, then up the stairs. They are partly hidden by the hulking figures of two men.

During the drive from the Home, we three girls squeezed into the back seat sat unmoving, still absorbing the shock of sudden removal from our restrictive but reasonably safe haven. Only Adelaide's sniffling could be heard. Her tears weren't allayed when Miss Pollack assured us of well-being in our new quarters. The foreboding appearance of the reformatory seems to justify Adelaide's apprehension. She has stopped crying and is staring at the looming reformatory that awaits us.

The car stops and the two plainclothes guards sitting in the front seat get out. One of the men opens the door. As we emerge from the back seat, we're aware that the two men are within arm's length, watching us warily. The small pale-faced girl who had been sitting next to me is practically lifted off her feet by one overzealous guard. The other seizes my arm in a tight vise. Satisfied with having contained his prey, he reaches out with his other hand and fastens his grip onto Adelaide. Her eyes are still glued to the stark prison confronting us. I want to shake her out of her trance but can't get my arms to move. My limbs feel leaden and my body as inert as the stone edifice we're about to enter.

Adding to my feeling of helplessness is some obscure premonition, an instinct that something dreadful could occur in such a sinister place. My throat feels taut. I feel isolated, apart. Fear envelops me. I feel totally alone.

The two men remain crushingly close as they direct us up the stone steps, through the gothic arch of the entrance to the door, and ring the bell. Without delay, as if watching from the window, a woman with greying hair and wearing a brown dress with a broach opens the door. Her appearance suggests she's the superintendent and is expecting us. Her attention is directed towards the men who have escorted us and with whom she will conduct the business of our transfer. This time I'm not entering the office or being greeted by the superintendent as I was at the Home. This time I'm entering an institution where all personal recognition has been dispensed with. This sudden realization triggers an immediate identification with all the women who preceded me and stood on this very spot. It's becoming horribly clear that my life is forfeit to a still unknown but punitive monster--the state. All movement, all time, even my very thoughts are being consumed. I feel naked, shamed, and defenceless.

The entrance hall is immense with shining hardwood floors. From it extends a spiral stairway with strong banisters. I envision the steps extending all the way up to a high-raftered ceiling--a tower.

There's a wide doorway to the right. To the left is a hallway. There are no furnishings, not a clock or a chair. The absence of a clock disturbs me as I contemplate timeless, meaningless days. The enormous space diminishes me. I imagine the warmth and comfort I've known being replaced with rigid austerity. A sinking feeling overwhelms me as I envisage every bit of control over my life being taken away.

Aside from low voices engaged in the solemn rite of conveying human cargo, there are no sounds. We stand in the hall outside the open door of the office under the men's watchful eye, brutally aware that talking may not be tolerated. Having completed their task, our escorts are impatient to leave and eager to turn us over to a tall older woman in a white uniform, who says tersely,”Come with me. “

She leads us to a room, holds the door open, and bids us enter. We are surprised to hear the door click locked behind us.

My mind spins back to try and pinpoint the exact moment that this nightmare began.

It's 1939 and I am eighteen years old.


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.


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

"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, Trent University and author of 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

"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, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

"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. "

- Alexis Kienlen, Ricepaper

"Any thinking person should be outraged by the issue raised by Ms. Demerson. "

- David Suzuki

"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 2006

"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), Issue #79

"Demerson's spare, unadorned account of the injustice done her is moving and courageous. "

- Brian Bethune, Maclean's

"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).

"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 from the point of view of those subjected to the law. If [Demerson's] account of the court hearings (if they can be called that) 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 is only one reaction to this sad story–a 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, Vol. 26 #1