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Lost Canadian Velma Demerson's tragic story of love and loss

Her ‘crime’ was different, having a relationship with and then marrying a Chinese man, but the result the same. Thrown in jail, stripped of citizenship and child, and forced abroad, Demerson offers a historical perspective on sexist laws that still deny Canadians their right to nationality. Another segment in the Vancouver Observer's Lost Canadian series shines light on a tragedy that has yet to be apologized for by the government.

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Pictures of Velma Demerson as a young woman, her first Husband, Harry Yip, and her young son from the cover of her book, Incorrigible.

Lost Canadian Velma Demerson’s days of looking over her shoulder ended in 2004 when she was returned her Canadian citizenship after more than six decades of being a pariah. More than six years on, Demerson continues to be a voice for Canadian women who remain victims of discriminatory laws still on the books. Laws like the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act, which denies women like Jackie Scott Canadian citizenship because she was born out of wedlock.

“I don’t know why the Canadian government is so adamant about things like that. For what reason? They are still under that old fashioned law where women are treated as children. There are women in this country who are stateless. The only time they find out is when they go to apply for a passport and then they find out the way that I did.”

As a young woman, Demerson was arrested under the 1897 Ontario Female Refuges act for being “incorrigible.” Until it was repealed in the 1960’s the law stated that a women, 16 to 35, could be arrested and institutionalized if they were found pregnant, out of wedlock, or drunk in public. Eighteen years old in 1939, Demerson was caught at the home of her Chinese lover, Harry Yip, and taken into custody.

She writes in her book about the first months of her internment:

“I don’t think about my fiancée anymore. My loyalties have dissolved in a sea of turmoil. I am still in shock. I will never think of sexuality…No one ever told me that I’m carrying a human being inside of me and I don’t acknowledge its existence. There’s a silent conspiracy to undermine that reality since I have antagonized the state by my monstrous behavior.”           

Demerson was sentenced to ten months at Ontario's infamous Mercer Reformatory for Women. There, she said attending physicians performed eugenics testing on her and her unborn child, tests Demerson believes cost the health of her son and sent her down a path of despair and tragedy.

“I never quite recovered from what happened,” she said on the phone to the Vancouver Observer.

After her release from the Mercer Reformatory, Demerson was further punished, this time by the Federal government, for marrying the man she loved. Under yet another antiquated law, Demerson assumed the nationality of her Chinese husband, a legality she discovered when she applied for her first passport in 1948.

“I was told I was Chinese. And that I should apply for Chinese citizenship.”

Demerson then visited the Chinese embassy, only to be denied by them as well.

“Their attitude was of surprise. Perhaps no other Canadian women had gone there before. And they just treated me politely but then they eased me out the door and that was the end of it.”

She was officially stateless until 2004.

“I lost my son over this citizenship business,” Demerson says about the series of decisions she made in the wake of her treatment at the hands of the Canadian government.

After her denial in 1949, Demerson left Ontario to BC, where she applied for a passport under her maiden name, and was granted the document (records were not readily shared between offices until recently).

“I was subject to five years in jail if the government found out about know, a false application. So I was scared every time that I left the country that I would get caught.”

She used her maiden passport to take her young son to Hong Kong, where she hoped he could have a better life away from the discrimination of Canadian society.

“If you were half Chinese and didn’t speak Chinese, you’d be called siwash and that was a derogatory term. I didn’t want him to belong nowhere, and he certainly didn’t belong in Canadian society. If he couldn’t fit into the Chinese, he would be a real a outcast.”

That decision turned out to be a tragic one.

Demerson’s marriage fell apart under the strain of her pariah status, and unable to make ends meet in Hong Kong, she sent her son home to his father in Canada without her. Upon return a year after, she discovered her son had been placed into state care. She was never allowed to raise him. The two never reconciled. He drowned at the age of 26.

Demerson’s story is an affront to the idea of what Canada is. But states, like people, are often never as good as they think they were. While the government today continues to correct past wrongs, many women are still subject to outdated laws like those once applied to Velma Demerson. Read more of their stories here.

Canada's first citizenship act came into effect on January 1, 1947, and was a product of its time.  Discrimination was legal, particularly against women and children.  Today Canadian citizenship is based on 1977 legislation, which means that citizenship in Canada is not necessarily Charter compliant.

Huge inequalities still exist where women can have fewer rights than men,where  people born prior to 1947 may not actually be Canadian citizens, where the government can still deny citizenship because a person was born in or out-of wedlock, as well as several other archaic reasons.

 "Thousands of unsuspecting Canadians remain at risk," said Don Chapman, an activist who fights tirelessly for the restoration of rights."

"Not just loss of citizenship but also pensions and other benefits.  There's even a way that a Canadian citizen can give birth to a stateless child.  Welcome to the world of Canada's Lost Canadians," Chapman said.  Find more information on this issue here on Champman's site and here for Vancouver Observer's Lost Canadian series

(44) Comments

CoastalSprite February 28th 2011 | 9:21 PM

Interesting topic, but something I'd like to read more about is the other side of the story, perhaps an interview with the officials for their reasoning or somesort. For now I only read these stories of "lost Canadians" with a large grain of salt.

Also, this is a petty criticism but it should be "woman" in one of your paragraphs, not "a women".



Darren March 1st 2011 | 12:00 AM

Thank you for commenting on the story. As the author I thought significantly about whether to approach this piece as a standard news story, with interplay between officials and individuals, or to let a single voice dominate the piece. In the end I chose the latter because the past coverage of this issue in the Vancouver Observer provides context for this specific piece, (official responses and all), and because the ‘other side’ of Demerson’s story, in my view, is cut and dry. Canada did practice eugenics in the 30’s and 40’s. And Canada did, and in some cases still does, have prejudicial laws against women, indigenous Canadians, and ‘foreigners’ from many walks of life. The links in the story provide further reading if you are interested in going more in depth into Demerson’s case and the thinking behind the laws that led to her incarceration. 


cic March 1st 2011 | 11:11 AM

other side of the story that the govenment as led by Mr. Harper and his citizenship Minister do not bother to respond to such solicitations for information, it is a very non-transparent conservative government!

Janet L. March 1st 2011 | 11:11 AM

To CoastalSprite, if you can get ANY politician on ANY level to speak with you about the reasons they will not fix the problem for the remaining 5% of Lost Canadians, then you will have accomplished a major miracle.  I have been an advocate for Jan Makins who has been exiled from Canada for the last 10 months. I cannot count the number of emails and snail-mails I have sent to politicans from Stephen Harper to Jason Kenny to Olivia Chow to many others only to be totally ignored.  Ask Don Chapman ( about his track record in getting politicians to talk with him.  The "other side" of the story is a secret well kept for reasons that evade those of us who are caught up in the challenge of getting justice for all.  Put away your salt.  Read the stories on Don's website.  Thiis is not an issue that is being overblown.  This should be making people ANGRY, not skeptical about it's authenticity.  Another thought to mull over is that if you have heard members of this current gov't spinning at every chance, then why would you think you would get a straight answer out of any of them?

Robert ADDINGTON March 1st 2011 | 11:11 AM

I believe that the government has made a political calculation that because Velma Demerson, Jackie Scott and the other remaining pre-1947 Lost Canadians are few in numbers and now in their sixties or older, this problem will eventually solve itself by natural attrition. What a shabby, cynical way to make citizenship policy -- or indeed any public policy.

I know of no other democratic state that has treated any similar group in this insulting, unconscionable and politically indefensible way. Why Canada? Because we let the politicians and the bureaucrats get away with it, that's why!

enough March 1st 2011 | 11:11 AM

The situation of this woman turns my stomach and I feel so sorry for what happened to her.  The remaining LOST CANADIANS should have IMMEDIATE reinstatement of their citizenship as this type of treatment has gone on for far too long of a time.  Why does the government have to make such a simple basic thing as human rights so complicated?  They should be ashamed of their actions and behaviour.

Lopey_K01 March 1st 2011 | 12:12 PM

I cannot believe this is a true story, this is the kind of story that would sweep at the Oscars. How can a country treat it's own so badly? It doesn't make sense that Canadian law can strip citizenship from someone against their will. Why can't the Government adress this issue from scratch, instead of building a house of cards & adding to a flawed citizenship act.

Velma's whole life was altered because she made one wrong decison, according to the Government at least, & that was who she wanted to marry. That shouldn't be an offence that can cause a lifetime of cascading problems for someone.

Canadian citizenship law seems to be written so that it doesn't have to claim anyone it doesn't want to.

traveller March 1st 2011 | 12:12 PM

And this happened in Canada?!!!  What happened to Velma is an atrocity.  No person should be subjected to such inhumane treatment.  It conjures up thoughts on Nazi Germany.  The Canadian government should be ashamed and should immediately issue an apology to her and the remaining 5% of Lost Canadians.  At the same time, it MUST take action to correct the deficiencies in the Citizenship Act and make it Charter compliant, correct the discrimination that still exists against women, eliminate the antiquated laws that still affect pre-1947 individuals.  Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney, do what you were elected to for the good of all Canadians and correct the wrongs that have been done and continue to be carried forward.  Silence and apathy on the part of the bureaucrats is NOT acceptable.  

Denise Renaud March 1st 2011 | 1:13 PM

I am a relative of one of the Canadian women who has, ostensibly, regained her citizenship under Bill C37, although she has not yet applied for a passport. My understanding is that many who have applied are still being, if not denied, kept in limbo very many months by CIC foot-dragging. Since Bill C-37 I have continued to write letters to the offices of Jason Kenney and the PM on behalf of the remaining 5%. To no avail.  I have yet to receive an answer to any of my letters. Nor have I ever received answers from Olivia Chow or any other federal NDP member. I have almost given up trying. My heart goes out to Ms. Demerson, and all the women who continue to struggle.  I hope Coastal Sprite never has a problem of any kind in which s/he would have to rely on any Canadian politician.







James3 March 1st 2011 | 1:13 PM

As a Lost Canadian myself, I would desperately like to hear the government's side of the story. But they - and, in particular, Mr. Kenney - refuse to answer any and all questions and approaches on the subject from almost ANY source. As of 2 months ago, my MP had sent 27 correspondence to Mr. Kenney's office on variously related matters and has not received a single reply. Mr. Kenney is recalcitrant.

It's pretty well impossible to have discussion, debate or an argument when the other party will not engage and his keepers won't force him to do so. What will it take?


I Harris March 1st 2011 | 1:13 PM

Yes, I would like to hear the other side of the story as well, especially how could a country and government treat a woman like this so badly?  It is nothing short of disgraceful.  You also have to ask how can the present government continue its discrimination against women?

  Why is it that if you were born in wedlock to a Canadian father pre 1947 you are Canadian but if born in wedlock pre-1947 to a Canadian mother, you are not.  It needs more than a grain of salt to understand any of it.



Erin March 1st 2011 | 2:14 PM

It is my understanding that this battle for basic human rights in Canada has been going on for quite a while. the government in canada is doing nothing about these archaic and sexist laws. So...start a class action lawsuit against the government and take it to court! If they refuse to listen and avoid the issue then impeach them or sue them. these are really the only options left, you can kick and scream all you want but get some lawyers involved and put an end to this all together!

katherine Chapman March 1st 2011 | 3:15 PM

Thanks to Don Chapman and his tireless work re helping all those who have falsely and cruelly been denied their rightful Canadian citizenship. Unfortunately, the government fails to act when such wrongs are committed.  It is up to all of us to speak out or be guilty ourselves of refusing to help others in need.   

Stuart Martin March 1st 2011 | 4:16 PM

I am not surprised by any of this.  As a Lost Canadian with my newly regained citizenship I am more and more disillusioned by successive governments in this great country leading its sleep walking citizenry by the nose.  As graphically shown in other country’s in recent days, people have power if only they would open their eyes far enough to see what is happening around them.  Nothing with change here until the citizens of this great nation sit up and take notice, until then we will continue to throw peas at an implacable wall of bureaucracy. 


Patrick Forbes March 1st 2011 | 4:16 PM

You can't imagine my sadness from reading her story.

Oh, Canada, what have you done? What are you still doing?

You open our doors to those who figure out how to get in, yet you turn your own away?

Truly a sad commentary. Are your hearing this Kenny? I refuse to address you properly as you are not performing properly.

Nikkei March 1st 2011 | 5:17 PM

As per usual it's nice to see the government step up to the plate!

For those cynics, when your Father moves back to his country , but has to leave his kids behind because they were born to a Grandmother and not a Grandfather, maybe you could understand the hurt of being torn apart from your family. My cousins can move and my uncles and aunts  thanks to 2009 can go back to Canada and wish to do exactly that. Except they can take my counsins and my Dad can not take us because he was born to a Female and my counsins were born down the Male linage...How is that right? legal or acceptable?

It is not! while half my family can remain in Canada, I can not follow my Father nor can my brothers or sister. This article is yet another totally absurd way of denying rights to a living breathing life- something that most people take for is just those who take it for granted who are cynical..I bet that would change if they were subject to this kind of treatment! Support your own! stop this -not in by yard- type of behaviour..we are Canadians thrown or kept out of our own country by laws that are illegal to use! you should be questioning how you can trust a government who leaves it's own citizens without any rights after being Canadian all their lives! Read up on the lost canadians thoroughly and you will see just how wrong and insane many of these ridiculous reasons are and how easy they are to correct! In a first world country who cares for immigrants, you can be sure if you fall under a draconian'l be ditched as if you never belonged.

Marc Gelinas March 1st 2011 | 6:18 PM

This is another example of the unconscionable posture of the Canadian government and the Citizenship Minister.  It is time for them to remedy the Lost Canadian situation or it is time to vote for a Parliament that will.  It looks like we need new elections to make things right.

James3 March 1st 2011 | 6:18 PM

Apropos the above ("new elections") watch Don Chapman in a recent Town Hall meeting with the Liberal leader:






BOSTODD March 1st 2011 | 7:19 PM

It never ceases to amaze me that such things can happen in a country such as Canada.  I think we pride ourselves as a model society, but when I hear about stories such as this, I am terribly ashamed.

I have read several stories about Lost Canadians, and they are all compelling.  I am astounded that, in this day and age, in this Canada, that people are still fighting for something as basic as their right to citizenship.  The current battle Lost Canadians are facing is discrimination at its worst, and this particular story is so heart breaking.

It is time that the current Citizenship Act be charter-compliant, and that the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Honourable Jason Kenney, make good on the promises made by CIC some years ago, that these handful of Lost Canadians will have their citizenship restored.

Dan March 1st 2011 | 7:19 PM

It is appalling & disgraceful … just when you thought you'd heard the worst of Lost Canadian's stories. 

As a former Lost Canadian, it's discouraging to see even a single case where citizenship remains unrecognized for anyone after C-37.

I was born just across the US border to a 4th generation Canadian Mother & American Father and personally fought for 10 years to re-gain my citizenship.  It was both frustrating & agonizing and ONLY because I was born to a Canadian Mother. Had C-37 not become law, I'd be in the same boat.  Where would we be with out Don Chapman?

Specifically, how many people are still left out?  Thousands were included in C-37, from simply from a public relations standpoint doesn't it make sense to accommodate the handful in this situation and move on?  Come on Canada!!


Wendy Adams March 1st 2011 | 9:21 PM

I too am a Lost Canadian, but I am one of the 'lucky ones'. 

In 2004 my brother and I found out that we weren't Canadian.  We were born in the US, our mother Canadian, our father American.  In 1973, when I was 5 and my brother was 10, we moved to Canada to  live close to my mother's family.  Thirty-one years later, after being raised, educated and legally working in Canada, we found out we were not Canadian. 

We fell under the 1947 Citizenship Act where if born to a Canadian mother in wedlock to a foriegn father, we were considered property of our father.  Our mother's citizenship meant nothing. Had our parents not been married, we would have become property of our mother and been granted citizenship automatically. 

In 1977, there was an attempt at correcting the discrimination, but a deadline was attached - August 4, 2004.  We had no idea that there was a deadline on citizenship. 

After 9/11, my brother and I decided it was time to get our Proof of Citizenship, so we could get passports.  Up until then we had travelled with our photocopied papers, without question.  We sent our application in on August 14, 2004.  Ten days after the 'deadline.'  Over a year later we were sent letters, stating that we were not eligible for citizenship.  We were shocked. 

In the spring of 2006, I was invited to Ottawa by Don Chapman to tell my story to the Standing Committed on Citizenship and Immigration.  With the hard work and dedication of Don Chapman, a few years later, a new law was passed that allowed for us to be granted our Proof of Citizenship. We have the utmost respect and deep gratidude for Don. 

Unfortunately, the new law did not cover all Lost Canadians and Don is still having to carry on fighting for those finding themselves facing the same discrimination - mostly women and children. 

Although I am now holding a Canadian passport,  I still consider myself a Lost Canadian, but one of the 'lucky ones.'

Sincerely Wendy Adams



Joe Blackbear March 2nd 2011 | 1:01 AM

First, I am so sorry to read about the outrageous treatment this lady received.

I had a small amount of insight into such a situation. My grandmother was also a so-called "stateless" person, although involving two different countries, after having to run for her life at the end of the second world war. She lived out her remaining years in limbo, neither the old nor the new country granting her citizenship, and like Velma, had much of her life stolen from her.

From that perspective, I am conscious of both ends of the situation. It is certainly attrocious for a government agency to withhold a person's birthright of citizenship. And it is a double-ended injustice.

Like in my grandmother's life, there is a grievous level of discrimination at the other end, too, and I wish the article would shed more light on it than the passing phrase "you’d be called siwash". This half-chinese limbo is far more than mere name-calling, and it makes me sad when we can't call a spade a spade, and close the eyes how the gross discrimination elsewhere - equally based on being the "wrong" race but in the opposite direction (i.e. not being sufficiently chinese) - and how this contributes in equal parts to create a double-ended tragedy. How else can we understand the magnitude of the injustice?


Ieuan March 2nd 2011 | 1:01 AM

This is a very tragic and true story.  However, I bet if Velma was born male, it would not have happened.  Canada discriminated against women then and still does to this day.  It is time to give women equal rights.  Stand up, Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenny and do your duty!

Debra Harvey March 2nd 2011 | 2:02 AM

This problem needs more media coverage! Lost Canadians are in every province of Canada. Our government needs to help resolve these cases and grant citizenship.

Jan Makins March 2nd 2011 | 10:10 AM

Velma's story is heartbreaking and unbelievable but the same could be said about so many "Lost Canadians".  More people need to rally around Don Chapman, voice their disgust at these injustices and galvanise the government into doing something.  At least Coastal Sprite has shown an interest and, who knows, once he/she becomes more informed perhaps he/she will become an advocate for us!! 

Magali Castro March 2nd 2011 | 10:10 AM

I thought I had heard and experienced the worst of it all when fighting a 13 year battle in attempt to restore my own citizenship and the right to pass citizenship onto my 2 sons, alongside Don Chapman.  This despite the fact that I am a 10th-generation woman born in Canada and a direct descendant of the first 3 Gagnon members to establish in Québec.  Now, I hear of Velma's battle and am angered, disgusted and embarrased to feel connected to a country that SO easily hides behind false humanitarian and compassionate veils.

My own battle consisted of a  lengthy, difficult court action against the government based on Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, spending over $30,000 of hard-earned money on a teacher's salary, sponsorship by the Federal Court Challenges Programme and The Chapman Foundation for nearly $40,000, 3 official presentations to the Standing Committee of CIC in Vancouver & in Ottawa, numerous television, radio and newspaper appeals/interviews and lastly, THE FINAL BLOW:  a 2-page fax in 2003 (following the government's and Denis Coderre's (then Minister of CIC) promise to "take care of all Lost Canadians") granting my sons & I citizenship ONLY IF I accepted to be an immigrant, paid medical & security checks for my family, lived 1 more year in Canada as a Permanent Resident, applied for Citizenship (waiting another year and still no guarantee) AND agreed to not go public with our story.  In other words, a gag order.  

 Raped of my citizenship, stripped of my identity held since birth, denying my mother's rights and my rights as a mother/women to pass on citizenship and now denied another basic right: freedom of speech, this government showed hypocrisy, discrimination, blatant lies, deliberate obfuscation, nastiness, broken promises. 

Leaving Canada was our only option as it was ALL too frustrating, too difficult, too disgusting, too painful.  Only then, after leaving, did the government grant my sons & I citizenship based on Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds, Section 5.4.  And yet, I continue to be proudly Canadian.  I continue to believe in the goodness of Canadians and the fairness of our democracy.  I spend each summer holiday in Canada.  Both of our sons have returned to Canada and one has commenced university . . each of us feels strong connections to Canada.   Despite being spit on, raped of our citizenship, rendered stateless, denied basic rights, violated of our Charter rights and freedoms.  

As I said in 2002 before the CIC Commitee:  "The "C" in Citizenship and in CIC comes first, before the "I".  How can Canada claim to shape immigration issues before it has even settled the most basic component of citizenship: those born IN Canada are Canadian?  Implicit in Velma's battle and we Lost Canadians are issues of social justice, blatant discrimination, ill-will, lack of accountability and hypocrisy.

When will the government of Canada, Stephen Harper, politicians and all Canadians FINALLY understand this?  When will our screams be heard?  Who will finally listen to our stories?      




Joe March 2nd 2011 | 10:10 AM

This has been going on long enough so I say to Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney  lets get the lost canadian Issue finished and let the last 5% of lost canadians get on with there lives.

Ilene March 2nd 2011 | 10:10 AM

It is time for our goverment to bring home the last 5% of our lost  canadians and let them get on with their lives.

I would also like to see the press give more press coverage to the lost canadians.

Arch Ford March 2nd 2011 | 1:13 PM

I have read many stories about Lost Canadians, and most are compelling. Velma’s story is exceptionally tragic, unless one includes Stalin’s treatment of the Russians.  In the years leading up to WWII racism and sex discrimination was rampant, and almost considered the norm.  During WWII, some countries took extreme discriminatory actions against various groups of people including the internment of Japanese in the US, even though they were US citizens.  Many years ago these countries moved on and apologized or even compensated the victims involved.

How is it that Canada, “who claims to be a model of human rights” has not moved on, rather still practices sex discrimination against the same group of people it did during WWII?  It is an amazement to me that such things can happen in a country such as Canada. 

Canadians should take heed and umbrage over this issue.  If the Canadian government still practices sex discrimination against older women in this day and age, and continues ignoring court decisions without recrimination, it can just as easily practice discrimination in many forms against the rest of its citizens whenever it so chooses.

It is long past the time for the Citizenship Act be charter-compliant.  If Mr. Harper is truly concerned about re-election, by correcting these long standing injustices, he would be assured of receiving many votes from these grateful victims, families and friends as an expression of their gratitude.

Michelle March 2nd 2011 | 3:15 PM
The fact that a country as advanced as Canada continues to prove itself to be not only backwards but flat out archaic is truly appalling. What will it take for the government to realize that your country is only as good as what it's comprised of- it's citizens. And when they continue to hurt, discriminate and bully it's citizens, it only shows the rest of the world that perhaps Canada is not as great of a country as the government likes to say it is. Shame on those with the power to fix these horrific injustices and who choose to do nothing but play dumb. It's long past time for them to take a stand and for a change, do something meaningful, worthwhile and honourable. Thank you to all of the individuals who choose to fight for those left behind, especially Don Chapman. If only there were more people like him out there, Canada and for that matter, the world, would be a much better place.