Loving a Chinese man and expecting his child shouldn’t be a crime. But white Canadian Velma Demerson got arrested in Canada in May 1939 because she was pregnant at 18 with the child of her fiancee Harry Yip.
Authorities took her in under the Female Refugees Act of 1897, where women could go to jail and become institutionalized for “incorrigible” behavior, including promiscuity and pregnancy outside marriage. As Vancouver Observer reported:
Demerson was sentenced to ten months at Ontario’s infamous Mercer Reformatory for Women. There, she said attending physicians performed eugenics testing on her and her unborn child, tests Demerson believes cost the health of her son and sent her down a path of despair and tragedy.
Imprisonment over “loving the wrong person” is outrageous enough, but Canada didn’t stop there with its punishment. As the CBC reported in an interview with Karin Lee, who is working on a documentary about Demerson called “Incorrigible”:
As soon as she got out of jail, she immediately married Harry and they tried to raise their son.
But [the child] was affected by some of the medications that she was given … so he had very extreme eczema, very severe eczema.
And the social worker just came by and just said, “You know, you’re just a child. There’s no possible way that you can raise this kid.”
So they took the kid away, and that was the beginning of a long struggle of trying to have her son in her possession [so] that she could raise [him].
Additionally, Velma Demerson’s marriage to Yip cost her Canadian citizenship due to an old law still on the books, stating women who wed foreign men would assume their husband’s citizenship. (The US also had a similar law that cost American women their citizenship when they married foreigners.) She only discovered this when applying for a passport in 1948. And when she followed the advice to seek Chinese citizenship instead, the Chinese embassy refused her application, which left Demerson stateless.
(That lasted for more than 60 years — yes, you read that right — until she finally had her Canadian citizenship restored in 2004.)
But because she had plans to move to Hong Kong, she went to British Columbia and managed to secure a passport under her maiden name. If authorities ever found out, it would have meant five years in prison for her, a risk that worried her every time she left Canada on her maiden name passport.
But in Hong Kong, where she went with her son, the hardship continued, as reported by the Vancouver Observer:
Demerson’s marriage fell apart under the strain of her pariah status, and unable to make ends meet in Hong Kong, she sent her son home to his father in Canada without her. Upon return a year after, she discovered her son had been placed into state care. She was never allowed to raise him. The two never reconciled. He drowned at the age of 26.
She went on to remarry and have another family, but everything she suffered because of her love for Harry Yip still weighed upon her. So after turning 60, she researched her situation and eventually decided to seek justice through the legal system, filing a lawsuit against the Ontario government, demanding an apology and $11 million in compensation. She received an apology in 2003 and later an undisclosed sum of money out of court.
Additionally, Velma Demerson went on to help other women imprisoned under the Female Refugees Act of 1897 get justice as well.
It’s heartbreaking to imagine that all of this happened to Demerson just because she loved a Chinese man and was having his baby.
How did the two meet? According to the filmmaker Karin Lee, Harry Yip caught Demerson’s eye when she was patronizing a Chinese cafe:
She was with her mother and a couple of other friends and they went to this Chinese café, and she thought he was a very cute waiter. So she kept dropping her silver to get his attention.
And finally he did pick it up and then he asked her for a date, and everybody was, like, happy about that. And then they went on some dates and she said that he was the most polite person and respectful person that she had ever met and just fell in love with him because he was such a decent guy — and good looking.
Just imagine what a beautiful life they might have had together, were it not for that fateful arrest.
Velma Demerson passed away in May 2019 at the age of 98. But Karin Lee hopes to share her story and struggle with wider audiences through a documentary about Demerson called “Incorrigible”, for which she’s currently seeking funding in an Indiegogo Campaign.
You can also learn more about this story through the interview with Karin Lee on CBC (Remembering Velma Demerson — the woman jailed in Toronto for living with her Chinese fiancé), a story about Demerson at the Vancouver Observer (Lost Canadian Velma Demerson’s tragic story of love and loss), and Velma Demerson’s page on Wikipedia.
What do you think of what happened to Velma Demerson?