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For Their Own Good

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Issue: 84 Section: Gender Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: Women

July 11, 2012

For Their Own Good

Ontario’s legal legacy of the "moral" woman

by Dalia Merhi

Velma Demerson (right) and her family, in an undated photo. In 1939, Demerson was incarcerated in Ontario for wanting to pursue a mixed-race relationship with a Chinese-Canadian. Her experience in prison is eerily similar to the treatment of Ashley Smith, whose guards watched her commit suicide in an Ontario prison more than six decades later. Photo: Wilfrid Laurier Press

MONTREAL—In 2004, Velma Demerson’s autobiography, Incorrigible was published as a testament to the degradation, abuse and torture of women incarcerated between the ages of 16 to 35 under Ontario’s Female Refuges Act, or FRA (1919-1958). She writes: "The seizure, stigma and family turmoil that ensued from confining a woman in prison passes down through the generations."

In the 1930s, female adolescents like Demerson were liberating themselves and growing up at a time when customs were coming apart. “Imagine what it was like at the turn of the century, where for the first time, women are starting to flock to cities like Toronto and are experiencing autonomy, they are mobile, earning their own wages and are able to purchase some degree of autonomy...” states Dr Amanda Glasbeek, professor at York University and expert on feminist criminology and Canadian women's legal history.

In 1991, Demerson was invited to speak at an annual general meeting hosted by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS)—a federation of member societies who work with and on behalf of marginalized, victimized, criminalized, and imprisoned women and girls.

Demerson spoke of her incarceration at age 18, in 1939, at the infamous Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females in Toronto. At the time, Demerson was a white, working-class teenager, living in a common-law relationship with Harry Yip, a Chinese national. Demerson was pregnant with his child when she was brought to court by her father, who opposed the union on racist grounds. Demerson was charged with being “incorrigible”—an offence not found in the Criminal Code. The judge denied her plea to marry Harry and remanded her to be sentenced under section 15 of the Female Refuges Act.

Dr Glasbeek, the author of Moral Regulation and Governance in Canada: History, Context and Critical Issues, explains, “‘Incorrigible’ meant that if a woman was considered defiant of authority she could be brought to court with no evidence required.”

The intrusion of the law in the form of the FRA was symptomatic of a broader movement in the 1930s to try to contain and detain women from themselves—political and legal reformers saw women as “trading in their virtues for what they called a good time,” explains Dr Glasbeek. As a result, this kind of so-called protective justice was deployed to discipline women from stepping out of their role and was deemed for their own good. “The concern was very specific, increasingly the blame for sexual liberties got transferred to women—and women were not deemed the best judges of their own sexuality,” states Dr Glasbeek.

After uncovering legal and medical archives and old newspapers that prompted her own investigation, Demerson stated, “I found that [under FRA] a neglected girl could enter an industrial or training school without appearing before a magistrate. She could be transferred to an industrial refuge and again to the Mercer Reformatory. A girl could wind up in a barred cell without having been in court.”

It just so happened that, at the time, the Canadian Social Hygiene Council was involved in promoting Eugenics as a mechanism for social reform and racial improvement. According to CAEFS, this resulted in the casual round up of thousands of women for incarceration after legislation passed in 1918 under the Prevention of Venereal Diseases Act (VD Act)—a campaign brought on by the Council, later known as the Health League of Canada.

The VD Act granted government-appointed doctors the authority to incarcerate women depicted as promiscuous and assumed to have contracted a venereal disease, women raped by a family member (or accused of incest), women feared to be queer or those suspected of eloping by her parents.

Government-funded agencies such as the Associated Children’s Aid Society of Ontario (OACAS), a program that began operating in 1920, targeted women living out of wedlock, confiscating their children as wards of the state.

Doctors used these women in custody to assess new drugs being developed. Velma’s pregnancy was threatened when she was given pills now identified as Pheniramine, Sulphanilamide and Dagenan—all forms of antibiotic and antibacterial drugs that have heavy sedative effects. Dagenan is no longer used to treat humans.

Women who displayed no symptoms of VD were sent to the Queen Street Asylum (also referred to as “999 Queen Street” and now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) for fever treatment; some were placed inside a cabinet or “fever machine” where the temperature was raised to over 105 degrees for long lengths of time.

Demerson’s newborn son suffered from severe skin disease as a result of the experiments. He was removed from the Mercer without consent from Demerson, who writes in her book: “What can one say in the brutal atmosphere of the Mercer where each person is obsessed with her own personal trauma?”

Dr Edna Guest, a physician at the Mercer Reformatory from 1921 to 1939, was a distinguished member of the Canadian Social Hygiene Council and contributed to the Social Health Journal, where she strongly, publicly supported the “sterilization of the unfit.”

Dr Glasbeek confirms that the medical experiments conducted on "incorrigible" women and Mercer inmates by Dr Guest and others were “not far in theory and technology from the Eugenics movement” of the 1930s in Nazi Germany.

Demerson recounts one such experiment: “I watch as she [Dr Guest] opens and closes a metal box...Suddenly I feel a pain so encompassing that I lose all control. My hands tear loose and I flail about...then with one swift motion, the doctor applies a burning liquid.”

Dr Guest was removed from her position with the Prisons and Reformatories Department on December 15, 1939—after carrying out a procedure that resulted in the death of an unidentified young female patient. CAEFS has found increasing evidence that many girls died from drug and fever treatments, but their deaths have not been recorded, partially due to the cover-up of medical records.

Ashley Smith's suicide on October 19, 2007, at the Grand Valley Institution for Women signals a nostalgic flashback to the abusive history of morality sentencing against Canadian women. Nineteen-year-old Smith strangled herself after a one-month sentence for "disruptive behaviour" that stretched into four years of incarceration, spent entirely in solitary confinement.

Although CAEFS was primarily responsible for the repeal of the offensive provisions of the FRA in 1958, women and girls continue to suffer abuse in Canadian federal penitentiaries. Ashley Smith died within the law and we learn from Velma’s memoirs that during her confinement at the Mercer, she too often resolved to die: “My deviation from normal behavior has undoubtedly been reported. I am being watched, more so since my escape, apparent attempted suicide, and hysterical screaming. I am only a step away from madness.”

On Novemeber, 23, 2011, Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, spoke at an open seminar at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law. He concluded by stating,“Ashley Smith’s experience in federal custody was one marked by missed opportunities. Her behaviour was primarily viewed as requiring security, as opposed to therapeutic interventions. Responses to incidents of self-harm were inconsistent and often contrary to her needs...while some improvements have been made, the accountability and governance structures that contributed to Ashley’s untimely death are still largely in place today.”

Sapers's report was a lengthy response to heavy criticism from human rights groups, including CAEFS, and after the public release of a ghastly video recording of Ashley’s suicide while in federal custody at the Grand Valley Institution for Women on October 19, 2007.

This year marks 10 years since Demerson finally cleared her name at age 81. At a national press conference on October 7, 2002, after 60 years of virtually no response or official apology, a negotiated settlement with the Ontario Government was reached and the Female Refuges Act was declared unconstitutional.

Demerson has been a tireless advocate for women illegally confined across Canada and now, in her 90s, she resides in Toronto. She received the JS Woodsworth Award for anti-racism from the Ontario NDP Caucus in 2002, on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

While Smith’s case renewed public interest in community-based alternatives for addressing women’s needs, Demerson and countless other women continue to live with the legacy of the FRA—a law that engendered contradictions, double standards and gender oppressions within a patriarchal culture that saw itself as a force for social change.

Dalia Merhi is a Montreal-based Arab artist, writer and citizen journalist involved in grassroots struggles for social justice. She is an editor with the Media Co-op.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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