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SENATORS’ STATEMENTS — The Late Velma Demerson

June 6, 2019

Honourable senators, I rise today to remember Velma Demerson, a tireless advocate, author, and survivor of wrongful imprisonment and forced statelessness. Last month, at the age of 98, Velma died, still engaged in her lifelong struggle for justice for women, who, like her, were jailed at the Mercer Reformatory because of who they loved.

At the age of 19, Velma was labelled incorrigible because she was pregnant, unmarried and in a relationship with a Chinese man. Born in prison, her son Harry Jr., like too many other children — some of whom were brutally abused — was taken by the state. Sexist and racist laws such as the Ontario Female Refuges Act criminalized women for being sexually active outside of marriage, for being in relationships with other women or with racialized men. While in the Mercer, many were subjected to untold abuse, as well as medical, particularly gynecological, experimentation. Following her release, Canada’s citizenship laws made her stateless as a result of her marriage to a non-citizen.

The institutional prejudice which victimized Velma and other women like her was unconscionable. Yet up until the moment of her passing last month, Velma continued her fight for justice. Not content with the individual apology and remedial action she received, she sought exoneration and compensation for the scores of women and children who were victimized at the Mercer Reformatory. As far as we know, Velma was predeceased by all of the other women. If still alive, most of their children are senior citizens: children like Robert Burke, whose arm and nose were broken while an infant in the Mercer, where he was born to his Indigenous ballerina mother who was jailed merely for being pregnant; people who deserve to have their pain and loss recognized and remedied.

The government cannot continue to stand silent on this matter. Velma’s death serves as an urgent reminder of two things we need to do to honour Velma’s legacy.

One, issue a public apology for once rendering her and too many others stateless because of sexist and racist citizenship laws.

Two, end the colonial vestiges of these policies that persist to this day by passing the order-in-council to bring into force the 2017 Senate amendment to eliminate sex discrimination in the Indian Act.

The time to act, honourable colleagues, is now. Thank you. Meegwetch.

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