Incorrigible: A Film About Velma Demerson
ProducersCheuk Kwan Karin Lee
- Release Date 2022
- Running Time 45 minutes
- Closed Captions Yes
- Availability Canada, USA
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Can you imagine being arrested and jailed because your boyfriend is Chinese? Most of us would never believe that was possible, but it did happen, in Toronto Ontario.
In 1939, Velma Demerson was arrested under Ontario’s “Female Refuges Act” a provincial law used to imprison women to help “save” them from leading an “idle and dissolute life”. In May of that year, Velma was just having breakfast with her fiancé – Harry Yip – when the police banged on the door of Harry’s apartment and barged in. Her father and two policemen grabbed Velma and questioned Harry. She was taken to a local Toronto jail and brought before a judge. He sentenced her to one year in prison. She was never offered a lawyer, nor read her rights.
Velma was just 18 years old, when her love story with fiancée Harry Yip turned tragic, all because of the colour of her lover’s skin, and the absolute power that men had over women’s lives. There were thousands of women who were incarcerated under state sanction – one of the most egregious acts of persecution against Canadian women, violating their human rights.
Incorrigible tells the inspirational story of a courageous woman who sought justice for the wrongful incarceration she suffered almost 80 years ago. It follows the struggles she endured, the forced separation from her newborn son, her loss of Canadian citizenship, the failed marriage to her husband Harry Yip and the eventual death of her son. But most importantly, it shares her successful case against the Ontario government, which she finally won in 2004, finding redemption an incredible sixty-eight years later, at the age of 84.
Up until her death on May 13, 2019, at the age of 98, Velma was a strong advocate for women’s rights and sought an apology from the Ontario Legislature and Federal Government for all 15,000 women who were charged under the Female Refuges Act - a crime for which there was no defense. Demerson hoped for an official acknowledgment that the incarcerated women were not criminals, and an apology for being illegally charged with a criminal offense.
She is one of the few women who have demonstrated what courage, conviction and perseverance means, to guard against the abuse of human rights and civil liberties. Her fight to expunge the reprehensible stain of racism and sexism in the past is just as relevant now with the awareness of what women have suffered at the hands of powerful men.
To date, the Ontario and Federal Government have refused to apologize to the other fifteen thousand women who were incarcerated under the Female Refuges Act (1896-1964). Her fight to acknowledge this illegal act by the Ontario Government continues today.
Director: Karin Lee
Producer: Cheuk Kwan, Karin Lee
Velma went to Toronto from Vancouver in 2015, at the age of 95 wanting to get the Ontario government to apologize to all women who had been incarcerated under the Female Refuges Act. She had already received an apology from the Ontario Government in 2002, almost 62 years after she had been put in jail. I found Velma incredibly inspiring, as did all the people who met her. She was an activist for women’s rights, and fought against racism, which deeply affected her and her family. Before she passed away, Velma told me she would like her story to be heard. I’ve been filming her since 2017, and have conducted many interviews with Velma, her longtime friends, professional colleagues and others who knew about her life, her struggles and her legal battles. It’s really important to document and preserve Velma’s legacy and have her story told. I believe Velma’s story belongs to all of us; all of us who fall in love, come up against hardships, but still want a happy ending. All of us who believe we should be able to marry or fall in love with a person of a different race without consequences, and have the dignity and freedom to have control over our own destiny. Karin Lee, Director
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