Justice For Velma
The Friends of Velma Committee Newsletter - Winter 2002


Velma's Press Conference Resounding Success

Eves Promises Justice

Still not Over


Velma Attracts Attention

Documentary on Velma's Life

The Story Behind Velma's Success



It is now history—the Ontario Government has begun to accept responsibility for Velma’s imprisonment 73 years ago for living with a Chinese man.

The breakthrough came on Monday October 7, 2002, following a press conference organized by Friends of Velma at Queen’s Park. With 25 media representatives present, including all the major newspapers and television stations in the Toronto area, Velma finally had a chance to tell her story to millions of Canadians. Flanked by NDP justice critic Peter Kormos, Ontario Federation of Labour Human Rights Director June Veecock and Toronto Councilor Olivia Chow, Velma broke into tears as she described the tale of horror that she had kept to herself for over 50 years until she began her fight for justice in the early 1990s.

Eves Promises Justice
The astoundingly successful press conference came at a time when Velma’s suit, initiated months earlier, had taken an unexpected twist. As described in our previous newsletter, an unrelated case, Sandra Murray v the Queen, decided in June, 2002 by Superior Court Judge Coo ruled that the Ontario government was immune from any claims for damages for conduct preceding 1964. At the time of the press conference, Velma’s case was on hold pending a hearing by the Court of Appeal for Ontario of Murray’s appeal from Justice Coo’s decision scheduled to be heard on Friday, February 14, 2003. The Ontario government had given notice earlier that it would rely on the Murray decision to seek a dismissal of Velma’s case. However, sympathy for Velma crescendoed over the spring and summer as the legitimacy of her case became established in the public mind. Unqualified support from the leaders of the two opposition provincial parties reflected public anger at the refusal of the Government to apologize to Velma and to compensate her. Media attention accelerated dramatically following her receipt of the J.S. Woodsworth Human Rights Award last March. There was a growing sense of moral outrage at the Provincial Government’s inaction. This pent-up anger finally exploded at the press conference and in the Ontario Legislature on October 7th when Peter Kormos challenged Ontario Attorney General David Young over his intransigence in the courts against Velma. It was only then, with mounting public pressure and political embarrassment that the government finally relented. After hurried discussions between Ontario Premier Ernie Eves and David Young, under the glare of public scrutiny, Eves announced the day following the press conference that he had ordered Young to ensure “that justice should be done” in Velma’s case.

Still not Over
This change in direction also followed intense questioning by several reporters of Government Ministers including Provincial Minister of Citizenship Carl DeFaria and the Attorney General immediately following the press conference. Finally, Attorney General Young announced that “the Premier asked him to arrange for government lawyers to approach Velma’s representatives to resolve this matter in the near future”.

Velma’s fight for justice is still not over. At the present time, negotiations are taking place with respect to appropriate terms to resolve her case with arbitration one of the options being considered. Velma is being represented in the negotiations by by Toronto lawyer David Midanik who has resumed carriage of the case from Joseph Markin. Throughout this process, Velma will continue to demand adequate compensation for herself as well as for others who have been victimized under the Female Refuges Act as well as an unqualified apology that would recognize the harm done by this sexist and racist Act. It is hoped that the negotiations will be resolved early in the new year.

The decision of the Ontario government to finally accept responsibility for the wrong done to Velma under the Female Refuges Act followed a three year campaign during which dozens of supporters handed out thousands of leaflets, organized fundraisers, publicized Velma’s case in their organizations, raised money and made contributions to support her legal action. Financial and moral support from the ONDP, the CAW and IAMAW came at a critical point. Special thanks go to four long-time supporters of Friends of Velma who organized the October 7th press conference and ensured that it was a success: Cathy Holliday, Erica Kopyto, Geraldine Bowman and Marc Kopyto. Most of all, the breakthrough in Velma’s case must be attributed to Velma herself whose dogged determination to expose the abuse done to her inspired her supporters to join her in what once appeared to be a near-impossible struggle for justice.

In addition to prominent coverage by Toronto’s daily newspapers, television stations and radio stations, Velma’s press conference and the decision of the Ontario Government to negotiate a resolution of her case received cross-country coverage on both CBC and CTV National News and was the subject of a live interview with Velma on CTV’s Canada AM. The publicity included a major feature on Velma’s case by Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong on October 26th and a front page article in the Chinese language Sing Tao Daily on October 6, 2002. Velma’s case even attracted international coverage including an article in Germany’s largest daily newspaper, coverage in the Buffalo News and an upcoming interview in Homemakers Magazine.

An ongoing project that will give Velma’s case a major boost has now been confirmed. A 40 minute documentary about Velma’s struggle for justice, conceived by Renata Mohr, a former Professor of law at Carlton University is in the works and will soon reach completion. Renata has not only been by Velma’s side during all the critical stages of her struggle, but she is an accomplished legal authority with a commitment to her cause and the talent to educate the public.

The Legal Case
Friends of Velma was initiated about three years ago by several activists in Toronto who wanted to help Velma obtain compensation and an apology for her persecution and imprisonment. Following a futile effort, largely on her own, to obtain an apology from Ontario’s Attorney General over several years, Velma Demerson retained the services of Toronto legal advocate Harry Kopyto to take legal action. The legal case was a challenging one to frame because it arose out of events 60 years earlier under a law that was abolished 40 years earlier.

In order to lay a solid foundation for the case, it was necessary to show that Velma’s treatment was illegal on the basis of the law as it existed at the time of her arrest in 1939. The courts had held repeatedly that the Charter of Rights could not be applied retroactively. In fact, a major class action suit launched by the Chinese Canadian National Council to obtain compensation for the victims of the racist poll tax applied to Chinese immigrants early in the last century was dismissed by the Ontario courts in 2001 precisely on this ground. A review of the law soon made it evident that the sexist and racist aspects of the Female Refuges Act under which Velma was arrested were legal and typical of other legislation in the 1930s. Even international legal principles established by the League of Nations were mute on issues of discrimination on the basis of sex and race. However, a lengthy and detailed study of the law in the 1930s revealed that the provincial Female Refuges Act, with its harsh provisions for imprisonment and moral purpose, were encompassed in the definition of “criminal law” and therefore fell within the jurisdiction of the federal government instead of the provincial government. It was not long afterwards that Mr. Kopyto drafted a court application based on legal precedents from the 1930’s that alleged that the Female Refuges Act was beyond (ultra vires) the powers of the Province of Ontario to enact. Thus, a solid, well-founded legal basis for the case was born!

Building Support
But that was only the first step. Funds had to be raised to sustain the proposed court action. Broad public support to establish the legitimacy of the case was needed. Starting with a core group of half a dozen activists including Jeannine Narcisse, Cathy Holliday, Geraldine Bowman and Harry Kopyto, Friends of Velma Demerson was established two and a half years ago. It met regularly to prepare a statement of purpose, distribute an appeal for funds, obtain endorsers from organizations and prominent individuals and publish a newsletter. With donated space in downtown Toronto, an office was established and staffed by a combination of volunteers and eventually a paid coordinator, Dylan Demarsh. Thousands of leaflets were distributed at rallies and meetings. Hundreds of e-mails were sent out. Several dozen prominent endorsers joined the feminist historians who helped Velma research her case in the 1990’s in supporting the case. Support actions including fund-raising activities and meetings were held giving Velma a chance to tell her story and appeal for support.

The first major break for the case came when Toronto Star columnist Michelle Landsberg wrote a sympathetic column on May 6, 2001 describing Velma’s plight to hundreds of thousands of readers. Shortly after, articles in the Chinese media resulted in a few thousand dollars being raised to support the legal action and the work of Friends of Velma. The case received an especially responsive chord within the Chinese community which embraced Velma in deep sympathy with her fight against discrimination because of her association with a Chinese man. This support was crucial in financing the part-time coordinator for Velma’s case which professionalized the Friends of Velma Committee significantly. Over the following year, Friends of Velma met increasing success in its efforts to build a profile for the case and raise support for it.

Not Easy
It was not easy. Almost all the lawyers that were approached refused to take the case seriously because it was seen as too dated. Prominent lawyers felt the case could not be supported because it did not challenge the constitutionality of the Female Refuges Act on the grounds of racism and sexism. A province-wide lawyers’ civil liberties group failed to respond to several appeals for support. Why did these groups and individuals take such a distance from the case? Because, they saw Velma’s struggle as stale, as peripheral, as not central to their concerns. However, despite the traditional civil liberties bar initially taking its distance from the case, the public at large rallied behind it. This was because Velma tied her case to ongoing civil liberties battles, to opposing proposed legislation to “protect” prostitutes, to campaigning against the overbroad, abusive restrictions in the “anti-terrorist” legislation and practices such as racial profiling. By making the connections to present day instances of racism and sexism, by seeking support from a wide variety of constituencies, by persevering, despite initial difficulties, in building support for the case, by establishing an all-inclusive activist committee open to participation by anyone agreeing with its clear and focused statement of purpose, Velma presented an inspiring, relevant and current profile.

A critical turning point occurred when three supporters of Friends of Velma who were also activists in the NDP in the Greater Toronto Area nominated Velma for the 2002 J.S. Woodsworth Human Rights Award named after the founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the NDP’s predecessor. This award is given annually by the Ontario NDP Parliamentary Caucus and the NDP Ethnic Liaison Committee to outstanding fighters for human rights. Last March, Velma was chosen unanimously for the award by the Selection Committee from a list that included a dozen well known public figures. The award resulted in a big boost to Velma’s case, an influx of support from several unions including the CAW and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) and broad public support that finally gave the court case the credibility it deserved.

During this time period, Velma was invited to speak at several conferences and schools, was interviewed on the John Oakley CFRB Radio show, the Peter Warren radio show, the CKNW radio show in Vancouver as well as other radio shows, had an article featuring her case by Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail and was well-received as a featured speaker at a cross-country conference organized by the Elizabeth Fry Society last year in Ottawa. Support for Velma’s case continued to escalate with a contribution of $3,000.00 from the Canadian Auto Workers and the donation of a labour day float by the machinists on which Velma rode proudly in Toronto’s 2002 Labour Day Parade. Especially helpful was the ongoing contribution made to the Committee by IAMAW’s communications specialist Frank Saptel. Friends of Velma’s campaign culminated this year on October 7, 2002, with a highly successful press conference at Queen’s Park described elsewhere in this newsletter.

While the government has now agreed in principle to compensate Velma and apologize to her, fruitful resolution of the negotiations with respect to these issues has yet to be achieved. Whatever happens in court or with the negotiations with the government, Friends of Velma has already taken a major step towards its main purpose which was to win an apology and establish the legitimacy of Velma’s claim for justice.


On Friday February 14, 2003, a three member panel of the Court of Appeal for Ontario will rule on a decision that may impact on Velma’s case. Like Velma, Sandra Murray was a victim of state-sanctioned injustice—years of abuse during the 1940s and 1950s in various foster homes and Children Aid Society facilities. Last June, Judge Coo of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice threw out her claim for compensation against the Ontario government on the basis that an amendment to the Proceedings Against the Crown Act had the affect of abolishing all lawsuits against the Ontario government concerning events that preceded 1964. That decision, which places government officials above the law and violates fundamental principles of accountability and equal access to justice, was relied on by the Ontario government in its early efforts to block Velma Demerson’s own lawsuit for compensation. The outcome of Sandra Murray’s appeal may still be critical to Velma’s own case, especially if the Ontario government refuses to negotiate in good faith, as it announced it would, following an outcry of support for Velma’s case in the Ontario Legislature and elsewhere last October.

Friends of Velma are calling upon all Velma’s supporters and readers of this newsletter to show their solidarity with Sandra Murray on February 14th. Her appeal is scheduled to be heard at Osgoode Hall (northeast corner of Queen and University) at 10:30 a.m. The likelihood of justice being done is always enhanced under the glare of public scrutiny. Please take the time to show your support. Attend the appeal hearing.

For more information, please contact:
340 College Street, Suite 265
Toronto, Ontario M5T 3A9
Telephone: (416) 907-5128
Fax: (416) 907-5127