Remembering Velma Demerson: Grand soul, feminist, human rights advocate and writer

[Velma Demerson was jailed in 1939 and by the Ontario government for the "crime" of having a Chinese boyfriend; sixty years later, she began an ultimately successful legal challenge seeking reparations; I'm pleased to present this remembrance for Demerson by Harry Kopyto, the campaigning human rights lawyer, who served as one of her advisors -Cory]

On Monday May 13, 2019, Athena Mary Lakes, better known as Velma Demerson, died from old age in a Vancouver hospital at the age of 98. She is best known for her successful legal battle culminating in 2002 against the Ontario Government for incarcerating her in Toronto in 1939 for almost a year. The reason for her incarceration? She was found morally “incorrigible” under the Female Refuges Act for living with a Chinese man, Harry Yip, whom she married after her release. Their son, who was born while she was in jail, was taken away from her until after her release.

Velma returned to Toronto in the late 1990s after living half a century on the west coast. While there, she married and raised two children. Her implacable sense of injustice led an unstoppable Velma Demerson to storm back to Toronto to quench her thirst for justice. After being rejected by a slew of Toronto lawyers, eventually she found Harry Kopyto who initiated a legal claim arising out of her imprisonment and turned a room in his office into a defence committee centre. Gradually, her case drew widespread public attention and support including from the leaders of all Ontario’s political parties at that time, the women’s movement, academics, the organized labour movement, the Chinese community and many individual human rights activists such as David Suzuki.

Some of the lawyers that she first approached ridiculed the prospect of initiating a lawsuit 60 years after a limitation period expired. However, Velma drew on support from a pugnacious legal team and a defence committee that issued newsletters, raised funds for legal expenses, publicized her case widely in the media and organized rallies, panel discussions and similar events. Many young people who heard her story could not believe it was true.

Despite the broad support and even outrage of many members of the public, the Ontario government resisted compensating Velma on the basis of the extraordinary lengthy delay of her legal claim. However, her lawyers soon concluded that the Female Refuges Act, under which Velma was jailed was in fact disguised criminal law with the power to jail children as young as 16 for up to two years. Accordingly, the Act was outside the legal jurisdiction of Ontario to enact. Her legal team realized that if they sought a declaration from the Court to that effect, their claim would not be subject to any limitation period at all! As a result of using that strategy, even though it might not offer her compensation, her supporters felt the Government could no longer oppose her claim once a judge declared the Act unlawful. The Ontario Government caved in when they realized their vulnerability.

There was massive support for her when the matter was raised in the Ontario Legislature. The Conservative government quickly settled her case with the Attorney-General and premier personally making an official apology.

The law that allowed Velma to be jailed, along with 15,000 other young women, was crafted at the beginning of the last century by racist promoters of eugenics. was seen as indefensible by any current standards. Even though the Female Refuges Act was abolished in 1964 because of desuetude (lack of use), almost none of the other victims incarcerated under the Act—many impoverished, emotionally drained and defeated by their abusive treatment—fought back despite Velma’s efforts to encourage those still alive.

Ms. Demerson was 18 years old at the time of her imprisonment (1938) in the Belmont House and the Mercer Reformatory for Women when the development of massive washing machines to clean the local hospital laundry washed until then by the Belmont House’s inmates made their free labour unnecessary, so they were packed into a fleet of taxis in the heart of darkness after midnight and ferried downtown to the Mercer Reformatory. There she was subjected to involuntary medical tests and injections and to rules of silence. The Mercer, which was ruled by a Superintendent committed to eugenics, was closed after a Grand Jury expressed shock at its dangerous and dungeon-like and inhumane conditions in the 1960s. In 2002, Velma received the J.S. Woodsworth Award from the Ontario NDP for her promotion of human rights and equity. Velma toured schools relating her ordeal to shocked students, spoke passionately at an Ontario Legislative Committee hearing on prevention of child prostitution, was a featured speaker at various conferences and advanced the rights of a vast parade of vulnerable people with her perspective of never giving up.

Velma was highly admired by everyone who met her. She laughed easily, was almost always positive, although sometimes irascible and was fiercely independent up to the time of her death. She wrote three books during her lifetime, two of which, Nazis in Canada published in 2017 and Incorrigible, published in 2004, were based on her experiences.

As one of her supporters and legal advisors, I recall, a few months after her legal victory, financial settlement and apology, Velma perched on the very top of a red firetruck rolling along in the Labour Day Parade in Toronto in 2003 greeting her admirers with a triumphant smile.

Velma’s struggle was motivated by her desire to set an example to others as well as to right an historic wrong against herself and victims of bigotry. She showed that through relentless struggle and solidarity, the most unlikely goals can be achieved. Her life has touched the souls of many.