Plight of 'incorrigible' Women Demands Justice

Sunday, May 6, 2001

by Michele Landsberg, Sunday Star, May 6 2001

Formal government apologies for historic state crimes have always seem a hollow gesture to me. Words of regret are cheap. But, on the other hand, when the government has imposed cruel and arbitrary suffering on a large group of its citizens, how can those people attain a sense of justice?

Take the case of Velma Demerson, now 80. I knew, but had forgotten until Demerson reminded me, that for nearly 70 years, until 1964, the province of Ontario arrested and jailed, without trial or appeal, girls and women between the ages of 16 and 35 whom a magistrate deemed to be "incorrigible". You needed only to be female, poor and sexually active to qualify for arbitrary punishment inflicted by male authorities in the name of "protection". ( Lower class boys weren't punished for sex; they were deemed incorrigible only for theft).

It was spring, 1939 and the Depression still lingered. Velma was 17 and living in her mother's rooming house on Church St. across from Maple Leaf Gardens. "My mother liked excitement," Velma says dryly. "She was English, divorced from my father, a Greek businessman in New Brunswick, and she told fortunes by reading tea leaves." Velma, a pretty blonde teenager, was tired of the fights, the uproar and the bedbugs in her mother's rooming house. Soon after she fell in love with the handsome young Chinese waiter at the Commodore Restaurant, she discovered the "quiet escape" of his room on Walton St. He gave her the key, bought her a pair of Chinese slippers and soon, the two were living together.

Velma's father came storming to Toronto, determined to separate the pair. "He felt his reputation was at stake," Velma says. By now, Velma was 18, rapturously in love ("I used to go through Harry's clothes while he was at work and just, oh my dear, smell them!" she exclaimed) and planning on marriage.

She and Harry were in their pajamas one morning when the police, led by her father ( "That's her!" he barked) burst in the door. It was the last she would see Harry for more than a year. By the time they were rejoined, her life was permanently embittered and their relationship doomed by circumstance.

Velma was taken to "Women's Court" at City Hall where a social worker questioned her. Velma made three strategic mistakes. When she was asked how many men she had slept with, she tried to protect Harry from accusations of seducing her by falsely saying "Two". And then, thinking that impending motherhood might save her, she blurted out that she was pregnant. The social worker immediately slammed her file shut and left the room. Taken before Judge Robert Browne, Velma, in her innocence, made one last error. "Just let me out and I'll marry him!" she begged.

She didn't know that "promiscuity", being "illegitimately" pregnant, and consorting willingly with a Chinese man, were all grounds for imprisonment under the Female Refuges Act of 1897. Indeed, anyone at all could charge a woman aged 16 to 35 with being "dissolute" under the Act, and she could be packed off to serve years as a laundress or seamstress in a church-run "refuge" or reform school.

In less than an hour, with no trial, lawyer or due process, Velma was remanded one week for sentencing. She spent the week sleeping on a bench in the Don Jail. Brought back to court, she was told by Browne that she was to serve one year in the Belmont Home for "incorrigibility".

The Belmont Home, now a swanky retirement residence in midtown Toronto,, was then an "industrial refuge" for incorrigible girls, run as a commercial laundry by the Protestant church. But only six weeks after Velma's arrival, the money-losing laundry was shut down and the 47 young women inmates were transferred, many of them weeping in terror, to the notorious Mercer Reformatory.

On arrival at Mercer, the women were issued a bundle of ill-fitting clothes (huge skirts, cotton stockings) and locked up in barred, windowless cells with an enamel bucket to serve as toilet.

"There were no clocks, so we never knew the time, and no newspapers. We were forbidden to talk. We had to walk in strict lines to the sewing machines, and to the dining room. They purposely broke up any friendships."

Velma Demerson, who looks 20 years younger than her age, speaks with clarity, intelligence and restraint. She doesn't embroider. When she says that the frequent gynecological examinations in prison were abusive, she clamps her mouth shut and says no more. The young women, many of them pregnant, were forced to line up and watch the pelvic exams until it was their turn.

It is clear that Velma deliberately numbed herself to the horror she was living through, including her lonely childbirth, an abortive attempt to escape from the maternity ward (clad in hospital gown and a bedsheet), and the months back in prison when her baby boy spent the days on a "sleeping porch" while Velma laboured in the sewing factory.

One day, her baby was gone, "removed to hospital" as she was laconically informed. She knew nothing more till she retrieved him after her release.

When Velma was discharged early after nine months, she didn't even smile at the news. Not until the matron brought her her street clothes. "When I put on my own silk stockings, then I knew I was free."

In telling me her complicated, painful story, Velma lost her composure only once, when describing how she walked away from Mercer Reformatory, suitcase in hand, and stopped to look back. She covered her eyes at the grim memory. "I never talked about it again, until now," she said.

The frightening incarceration and the alienation of her feelings took a long-lasting toll on Velma's life. Although she was reunited with Harry, their marriage --- tormented by the baby's severe eczema and asthma, and the lack of money for his medicines --- lasted only a couple of years. Harry Jr. had a difficult, disrupted childhood, and drowned at the age of 26.

"I want justice," Velma says now,sitting up straight, tiny and fiercely determined. "I was estranged from my family to this day. I'm on the books as guilty, and so are the other girls. Some of them lost their babies."

Velma Demerson and the thousands of other women who were criminalized because of their sexuality are certainly owed some form of redress.

As for the rest of us, we should remain alert to the potential for terrible harm and abuse when men in power pass laws to "protect" girls and women.