The Mercer Reformatory for Females is gone now, torn down in the late 1960s and replaced with Lamport Stadium near the intersection of King West and Dufferin in Toronto. I live nearby and walk past the place a few times every week. Since reading Incorrigible by Velma Demerson, I am haunted by what transpired at the Mercer.
Demerson was arrested in 1939, at age 18, for living with her Chinese boyfriend, which was against the law at the time. Her family reported her and she was at first taken to Belmont Home, a residence for “incorrigibles”. When the home closed down, the residents were all taken to the Mercer, even though they weren’t technically criminals.
When the Mercer closed in the 60s, the living conditions were considered to be utterly unacceptable — many cells didn’t have windows or toilets. But it was the treatment of the women there that was the most horrifying. At the same time the Nazis were doing medical tests on women at Ravensbruck, the Mercer was injecting inmates with sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis, and testing treatments on them. The women were not told about these tests, and were told little about their treatments. Demerson recounts being in constant pain caused by the tests done on her and it was only decades late that she was able to settle with the government for the abuses she suffered.
Incorrigible tells Demerson’s story in her own voice. It’s a rough style, told in the first person with no dialogue, and reads in places like a journal. There are details that are brushed over or left out, particularly about her later life and her relationship with the son she gave birth to while at the Mercer.
We like to think of Canada as socially aware, forward-thinking place, but it wasn’t always so. The treatments done on young women without their consent or understanding rank up there with the travesties of residential schools and the export and abuse of home children.
Demerson has written a satirical novel called Nazis in Canada, based on her experiences at the Mercer.