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On the morning of May 3, 1939, 18-year-old Velma Demerson, three months pregnant and wearing her pyjamas, was sitting down for breakfast with the man she planned to marry when there was a loud banging at the door.

In came two Toronto police officers, followed by her father. "Is this her?" one of the officers asked. "That's her," her father said.

In the hour that followed, Ms. Demerson was arrested, driven to a courthouse lockup, placed in a barred cage, questioned about how many times she had had sex and with whom and taken before a magistrate who remanded her in custody in what she thinks was Toronto's Don Jail.

A week later, the magistrate ordered her incarcerated for "incorrigibility" for one year in Belmont House, formally known as the Toronto Industrial Refuge (and now an elegant retirement residence). She subsequently was transferred to the grim Mercer Reformatory for Women.

Her crime: living with a Chinese man, Harry Yip.

Ms. Demerson, now 81, has worked for years to unearth the records of her incarceration. She recently found an internal government memo warning the attorney-general of the time that incarcerating women under the act was possibly an illegal constitutional intrusion into federal criminal justice jurisdiction.

She is now suing the Ontario government for unauthorized imprisonment.

Last night, the Ontario New Democratic Party gave her its annual J. S. Woodsworth Award for making a significant contribution to ending racial discrimination.

Ms. Demerson recalled in an interview the events of that year -- a chronicle of official social control of women's lives that a historian who has studied her case and others calls "a horror story."

Hundreds of Ontario women were imprisoned, like Ms. Demerson, under the provincial Female Refuges Act, which stated that "any parent or guardian may bring before a judge any female under the age of 21 years who proves unmanageable or incorrigible."

The act was not repealed until 1958.

So-called houses of refuge were church-run institutions for women and youths deemed incorrigible. Belmont House's annual report described it as a refuge for feeble-minded women.

The institution was unexpectedly closed six weeks after Ms. Demerson arrived, and she and other inmates secretly were transferred to the Mercer Reformatory, now the site of the Allan Lamport soccer stadium on King Street West.

For the next seven months she operated a sewing machine, worked in the dining hall and slept in a windowless, one-by-two-metre cell. She had to submit to an internal examination in a room with other women. She was sexually abused by a staff member. She was allowed to speak only half an hour a day. She was not allowed writing materials, a clock or newspapers.

Because of the sexual assaults, when she was sent to Toronto General Hospital to give birth she escaped, wearing only a sheet. Her mother talked her into going back, and Ms. Demerson returned to the reformatory with her infant son.

She told of heading as usual for the jail nursery one morning only to be told by a matron that her child had been taken to hospital. She was given no explanation. She didn't see him for several weeks.

Ms. Demerson was let out after nine months -- released early because the King and Queen were visiting Toronto.

Historian Joan Sangster of Trent University says the legislation targeted young working-class women who had sexual liaisons with non-white men.

Lawyer Jill Copeland, who studied the act, says the provision requiring judges to "make reasonable enquiry" into the truth of allegations of incorrigibility was seldom observed.

Ms. Demerson married Mr. Yip, but the marriage ended in divorce three years later. She said that her son was subjected to constant racist insults. He drowned at the age of 26.

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