On May 13, 2023, CCNC-SJ and Reel Asian Film Festival co-presented a film screening of Karin Lee’s Incorrigible: A Film About Velma Demerson at Innis Hall in the University of Toronto’s downtown campus and a panel bringing together the voices of Karin Lee, writer, and director; Lisa Mar, associate professor for the Department of History at the University of Toronto; and Rosel Kim, senior staff lawyer at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), with moderator Jan Wong, Canadian academic, journalist, and writer.
This event was created to commemorate the centenary of Canada’s 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act and attempts to bring awareness to and examine a broader piece of Canadian history of racism and discrimination through Velma Demerson whose life was entangled by the Chinese Exclusion Act and Female Refugees Act.
This dark part of Canada’s history is shared with the signing of the Williams Treaties and the passing of the Female Refugees Act in 1913 by the Ontario Legislature, which created a unique intersection of vulnerabilities for white and racialized women and continues to be perpetuated by certain systems.
With the generous support from the University of Toronto and The Metropolitan Lincoln Alexander School of Law, CCNC-SJ and Reel Asian were able to host a free public screening and commissioned the following article by writer May Lui to explore a broader perspective of Velma Demerson’s story.
Incorrigible, Intersections and Oppression: Seeking Justice
by May Lui
In this essay I will be examining the story told in the film, Incorrigible: A Film About Velma Demerson (2022), a documentary about the life of Velma Demerson, which was directed and produced by Karin Lee. I will also be discussing many complex, intersecting and overlapping issues raised in the film, that affected more than just Velma Demerson.
While mixed-raced relationships were not against the law in Canada, as they were in the United States at the time, two interwoven social ideas (with legislation and institutions to match) were in place that structured what happened to Velma. Firstly, anti-Asian racism, which as of 1923 already restricted immigration from China through the Chinese Immigration Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act). Chinese men were seen by mainstream (white) Canada as a threat to white women, enforcing and enacting many notions of the racist “Other” that persist into the present. And secondly, white eugenics-style sexism, in purporting to “protect” white women, served to control them, with the goal being heterosexual marriage, but only to white men.
Demerson, a white woman, had a romantic relationship with Harry Yip, a Chinese immigrant, when she was 18 years old in 1939 and became pregnant out of wedlock. They both lived in Toronto, Canada.
At this time in Ontario’s history there was a law called the Ontario Female Refuges Act (previously called An Act Respecting Houses of Refuges for Females) which was originally enacted in 1893 and was repealed in 1964, after stories of physical and sexual abuse continued to emerge. Under this Act, the province was empowered to arrest and detain women between the ages of 16 and 35 who behaved in ways that society deemed immoral, improper, and incorrigible, and could be imprisoned for up to three years.
When Demerson’s father, who was living in New Brunswick at the time, learned of her relationship with Yip, he travelled to Toronto and demanded the police arrest her, which they did. Her crimes were for being incorrigible, which is how her out-of-wedlock relationship with a Chinese immigrant was considered (see Sections 15 and 17). In 1939 Velma was sentenced to one year, served in part at the Belmont Home for rehabilitation, and then she was transferred to the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women.
Demerson was 96 in 2017 when she launched her book Nazis in Canada: A Satirical Novel about Actual Characters at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. The book described the life of a fictional physician at the Mercer Reformatory, based on Demerson’s actual experiences when she was there. In the film, Demerson described violent, intrusive and damaging acts of harm done to her, during and after her pregnancy, by the various physicians and other so-called medical practitioners at Mercer Reformatory. Conditions in the Reformatory included 47 girls/young women in cells of 4 feet by 7 feet, with no windows. They had to perform hard labour, were locked in their cells regularly, and experienced ongoing degradation from the prison staff and the physicians. [Reference Incorrigible: A Film About Velma Demerson Timestamp 11:48-20:42].
When she was released from prison, Velma Demerson and Harry Yip got married. However, because of the laws in Canada, since Yip was a non-citizen, women who married men who were not citizens lost their Canadian citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1919 created further restrictions on immigration, to keep out so-called “dangerous ideologies and subversive activities”. “Immigrants originating from countries that fought against Canada during the war were specifically prohibited”. While China was not an enemy of Canada in 1919, nor when Demerson married Yip, anti-Chinese rhetoric, and systemic anti-Chinese immigration were firmly embedded in legislation such as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Demerson remained stateless for over 40 years. In her 80s, she pursued and received justice for her treatment at Mercer, in the form of an apology from the Ontario government (that she reads on camera in the film) and an out-of-court settlement.
In the final years of her life, Velma Demerson continued to seek ways to find justice for all women who had been imprisoned in the Mercer Reformatory. May we all be inspired by her strength and conviction to fight for both our own human rights and struggles against injustice, and also in support and alliance with others.
Reinforcing Misogyny and Racism Through the Law
In examining the creation of the Ontario Female Refuges Act, and its main location, the Mercer Reformatory, it becomes clear that it was an extension of Canada’s overall policy to reinforce different misogynist and sexist ideas about how women are supposed to behave, under patriarchy and white supremacy. [Reference Incorrigible: A Film About Velma Demerson Timestamp 37:45]. Based on the values of Canada’s Eugenics movement, white women were understood to be valued and in need of both protections from non-white men, and control by family or the state, but only if they were middle-class, comply with the standards of white femininity, marry white men, and have children with white men. Under these expectations, other white women, particularly working class or poor white women, are less desirable as wives and mothers for the next white generation, and such laws were aimed to criminalize or psychiatrize these communities of white women. Indigenous women were also targeted by this Act, and, while the statistics for the Mercer Reformatory are not available, we can assume, like the modern-day prison system, that they are represented out of proportion to their population numbers. Indigenous women were, and still are, subjected to immoral and appalling practices of forced sterilization.
In total, thousands of women, from age 16 to 35, were arrested, detained, and imprisoned in the Mercer Reformatory while it was open. Many, like Demerson, have passed away, but there are some survivors who are still alive and living in Canada, whose stories are not known outside of their families and who have not received justice. Additionally, many survivors have not shared their stories. It’s significant to note that the age ranges for children (16-18) and young adult women (19-35) cover what are considered the “child-bearing” years. Those are the years that state, religious and moral control of both sexuality and pregnancy (wanted in the case of white women with white men, and unwanted in the case of any mixed relationships and all Indigenous and other racialized women) was of a vested interest for Canada, as non-white immigration was slowly changing the literal face of Canada, as well as the ongoing active genocide by the Canadian state against the once-vast Indigenous population of Canada before it was called Canada.
Demerson, a white working-class woman, experienced abuse and mistreatment by the staff and physicians at the Mercer Reformatory when they learned she was pregnant. Her descriptions in the film and her book about what happened to her before and after she gave birth are chilling and horrendous. What she described from 1939 continues to happen to Indigenous women today in the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, the medical system, and other colonial systems that Indigenous , Black and other racialized women in Canada are compelled to interact with.
After being released from Mercer, Demerson and Yip tried to raise their son but he was removed from their care. This continues to be a practice by the current-day child welfare system – the middle-class judgment that says that simply being poor equals neglect and automatically means an inability to care for a child. For Indigenous women, because of deeply embedded anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, simply being Indigenous is enough to justify taking newborns into custody. Presently, there are more Indigenous children in care today than there were at the height of the residential school system. One system of Canadian anti-Indigenous racism has simply been replaced by another.
Intersections Past and Present
Learning of Demerson’s story brings us to the many layers of legal and legislative injustice that she faced. Systemic sexism and racism (specifically anti-Asian racism) have been a part of Canada since the colonial country was created. These systems are very much interwoven with others, that all reinforce each other. Anti-Indigenous racism, in practice and through policies, from the past and in the present, continues to impact Indigenous communities in Canada. The same can be said for anti-Black racism. Anti-immigration sentiments persist; directed at Irish, Italian, German and Jewish communities 80-100 years ago, to the present-day ban on migration from different countries, largely for political reasons. This continues to be the way Canada functions, even as the target countries change.
Additionally, present-day laws continue to use systemic sexism and misogyny and focus on women’s actions, behaviours, and clothing with regard to rape, sexual assault, and violence. Victims of sexual harassment (for example women of colour who migrate to Canada, women in the Temporary Foreign Workers program, migrant farm workers), have little to no recourse when experiencing violence at work, at border crossings, or when dealing with different government agencies. Lack of status and citizenship, and blocking paths to citizenship, such as what Harry Yip faced, leaves present-day immigrants, migrants and refugees in very similar precarious situations. Today, there are groups of migrants who are illegally detained in various detention centres in and around Toronto and other cities in Canada, and are subjected to abuse, wage theft, and displacement.
This entirely suits the Canadian economy, because having a large pool of poorly-paid and poorly-treated workers deemed “replaceable” has made Canada what it is today. Tracing back to the Chinese railway workers – who were sought after during the building of the railroad, especially in the last and most dangerous part, over the Rocky Mountains and into British Columbia, and then abandoned when the work was completed – this pattern continues today.
The same ideals from the Female Refuges Acts, mirrored in the Indian Act and Canada’s current immigration laws, persist. Control of certain populations of white women, Indigenous women, immigrant and migrant women, all poor and low-income women, is key. These are the lived and enacted versions of what white supremacy, patriarchy and consumer capitalism look like. Systemically, nothing has changed.
Recognizing that this is Canada isn’t easy. To those of us who attended primary and/or secondary school in Canada, this is hard to understand as practice, not the exception. We were taught a manufactured history grounded in colonial, white supremacist, and deeply violent values that go against everything we’re taught about Canadian identity. That Canada is a kind, generous, open country, always being compared to the United States by saying “we’re not as bad as they were/are, we never had slavery, we were never that cruel to Indigenous people or immigrants, we are less violent”. It’s very challenging to realize that these are all lies and myths, meant to keep and sustain the status quo. Or worse, meant to support the idea that Canadians can justifiably feel superior to Americans. Any facts that contradict these lies and myths are diminished and dismissed. While there is no definitive book about Canadian history and debunking myths, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an excellent source for a counter-reading to the myths that are continually perpetuated about the United States.
But still, legislation doesn’t lie. In fact, historical and current legislation tells us many truths about which communities are valued and preferred, and which communities are not. This can vastly contradict the party line of the multi-cultural and soft-liberal rhetoric about how nice Canada is and how well we all get along.
And, unlike access to the Mercer Reformatory’s records which are now restricted, Canadian history is very easily unearthed through laws, some of which have since been repealed (Chinese Immigration Act), and some which are still legal to this day (the Indian Act and the redundant and racist Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act).
Questions and Actions for Allies and Supporters
How can we move forward? How can justice be found for, at the very least, those living with memories of violence and injustice at the hands of the province of Ontario at the Mercer Reformatory? What about their living descendants? What about ongoing violence and racism such as the rise in anti-Asian racism since 2020, the RCMP’s occupation of Wet’sewet’en territory, and the still unaddressed atrocities of the bodies of thousands of children at hundreds of residential schools? What about the anti-Black racism in the police practice of carding, the over-representation of Black Canadians in prisons, and racist violence against Black Canadians? What can we do to support and fight against current-day injustices?
What else do we need to know about Canadian history?
Did you know that the Chinese Immigration Act was enacted on July 1, 1923? This is a pretty clear message about who is to be considered Canadian and who is not. Some Chinese Canadians call July 1 Humiliation Day.
One of the important ways to contribute to social justice struggles, if you are not a member of the affected community, is to always follow, never lead. If you are not Asian, do not lead fights against anti-Asian racism. If you are not a woman, do not lead struggles for justice for women who are victims of violence (either domestic violence, or state violence such as what Demerson experienced).
For allies and supporters:
- Find groups in your area and region. Some might be online only, some might organize actions and have lists of tasks for allies and supporters to do.
- Find provincial and national groups. Again, look for where they are asking for support from allies and others.
- Challenge racism and sexism when you hear it, every time you hear it. Yes, that’s not easy. But nor is it easy for those who experience hatred, violence, racism, and sexism. Be brave and speak up. Yes, even when you are the only person in the room that will speak up. That’s when we most need you to do it. While those who feel vulnerable or unsafe may have reasons to hesitate, this cannot excuse those with power and influence from speaking up – every time.
- If someone else speaks up, support them in the moment. Align yourself with them, even if you are out-numbered.
- Educate yourself. There are links attached to this article, check them out. Find more. Share them with your friends, family and community. Talk about them, have discussions, learn more about Canadian history.
- Remain open and curious and ready to challenge your own assumptions and beliefs about what you think Canada is, and how you think Canada got to be Canada in the first place.
- All of us have more to learn and unlearn about ourselves and other communities. We are never finished our learning, so take up the challenge.
- Look at where you have privileges, and how your privileges are rewarded. Are your privileges ever taken away? When and how does that happen
- Recognize that much more has to be done than encouraging individual efforts to be allies or to be actively anti-racist. Beyond our individual changes, we must hold accountable those with the power and influence to lead and to make systemic changes to laws and policies, resources and services, organizations and institutions.
- 2020 in Hindsight: Intergenerational Conversations on Anti-Asian Racism during the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Our Lives Are Essential: Chinese Canadian Frontline Workers Pandemic Project
- Full Immigration Status for All: For a Just Recovery from COVID-19
- Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network: The Effects of Bill S-224
May Lui (she/her) was born in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, Québec, Canada, May (she/her) is mixed-race; a settler/ immigrant descendant of Chinese and white/ European/ Jewish ancestry. May is white-presenting and is an activist and supporter of many fights and struggles against violence and injustice including colonialism in Canada and around the world, anti-Asian racism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, sexism and misogyny, classism and consumer capitalism, and other forms of systemic oppression. May currently lives in T’karonto.
May has a Master of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto. May has been facilitating anti-oppression training and education since 1997.
May has worked with non-profit organizations for over 30 years. She has worked as casual, part-time, and full-time front line staff, and as a manager, executive director, board member, and volunteer. She has progressive, practical, and dynamic perspectives about the different roles within non-profit organizations.