Elenore Sturko holds her great uncle’s journal above the book she is self-publishing of it, a project she undertook to commemorate his service as a Mountie. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Elenore Sturko holds her great uncle’s journal above the book she is self-publishing of it, a project she undertook to commemorate his service as a Mountie. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Forced out for being gay, Mountie’s legacy ‘not the end of his story’

Journal project of Surrey RCMP Cpl. Elenore Sturko aims to commemorate her great uncle’s service

Surrey RCMP Cpl. Elenore Sturko is on a quest: to have her great uncle’s service as a Mountie in Canada’s North be the legacy for which he is best-remembered.

Robert David Van Norman detailed much of what he did in his job and what that meant to him in a hand-written journal rife with photos that he created as a gift for his parents before his policing career came to an abrupt halt in 1964, when he was purged from the RCMP for being gay.

“It’s an adventure into a new world which you have to live in to fully appreciate,” an inscription penned by Van Norman to his parents reads, in part. “You must toil and battle all your life to exist, but you are happy and near to God… and it’s all wonderful.”

Sturko, a South Surrey resident, first learned of the journal last March, while visiting with Van Norman’s brother – her great uncle Jack – and his wife for research on another book project.

Jack pulled the journal from a box of memories that he’d inherited after his mother passed away, said Sturko.

Its pages have yellowed over the years, and the journal’s cover is similarly fragile. But the passion that Van Norman had for his job and for the people is indelible, said Sturko – and, it inspired an idea: to share her great uncle’s words and photography in a book the whole world could see.

“I don’t see that it needed to be the end” of his story, Sturko said of the chapter of disgrace that hung over her great uncle’s exit from the national police force.

“I wanted to make sure that he is remembered as an excellent member, not remembered that he was the guy that got kicked out of the RCMP for being gay.

“That was really important to me, and it sort of would help close a loop on just reconciling my own existence in the RCMP today, and seeing how far we’ve come.”

Today, 50 years after LGBT activity in Canada was decriminalized – under the same bill (C-150, introduced by then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau) that also allowed abortion, regulated lotteries and more – Sturko, who is openly gay, has been a Mountie for a decade, and a media spokesperson for Surrey RCMP since early 2018.

She arrived at the country’s largest RCMP detachment nine years after being recruited from Yellowknife, where she had been serving as a full-time reservist with the Canadian Armed Forces.

Her years as a Mountie so far have taken her from the Northwest Territories to the Lower Mainland and back again, as well as to Ottawa, with the Musical Ride; the RCMP’s internationally known 32-member horse-and-rider touring troop.

Last March, Sturko told Black Press Media that reconciling the history of the (LGBT) purge and what happened to her great uncle, and making the decision to join the RCMP, “has been an interesting journey.”

“The RCMP has come a long way. There have been questions at times, I read the paper like everybody, and it’s ‘Can the RCMP change?’ And I’m like you know what? Heck yes, we can. I’m living proof,” she said.

READ MORE: A Surrey Mountie’s tale of reconciling her family’s history with the LGBTQ+ ‘purge’

Speaking with Peace Arch News last week, Sturko’s pride in the RCMP hasn’t wavered.

The journal project “was personally important to me, but also I think that it’s a good example and hopefully encourages people to know how far we’ve come – and not just for LGBT people, but women, people of different, diverse backgrounds,” she said.

“This is a true example of how human rights and Canada’s diversity really is reflected in one of our major institutions, and the progress we’ve made as a country. I think it’s very… awesome.

“I’m more proud even knowing more of the details of what happened to my uncle and how sad and tragic and impactful and devastating that was.

“It hasn’t diminished it in any way, because now knowing where I sit and the privilege that I get to serve openly and be part of the community and serve and give back makes me extremely happy for the changes that have taken place, and I’m grateful to all the work that’s been done inside and outside the organization to make that a possibility.”

Sturko hopes to finish her journal project – Paanialuk: The Tall One, Remembering Robert David Van Norman – and have it available on Amazon by Christmas. Backed by the LGBT Purge Fund, she said profits from the self-published tome will benefit projects in the northern communities that her great uncle held close to his heart.

She emphasized that no editing was done to Van Norman’s writings; the journal pages appear in full, along with restored versions of many of the photos.

But, with the help of Pond Inlet descendants, elders and the town archivist, she has added “local knowledge” and “little pieces of historical context” to correct or clarify some of the things her great uncle shared.

“There was some things he obviously didn’t understand,” she said. “Some of the language in here, I would say even to be unacceptable by today’s standards.

“At the same time, too, I have not changed any of it. Because you shouldn’t sanitize history, you should acknowledge history.”

The book has also been translated into Inuktitut, a language her great uncle learned from the Inuit people he’d sworn to serve and protect.

Sturko said Van Norman’s time in the North “defined a lot of who he was as a person” – and she can relate to that.

“I served up North, too, and I can really tell you that the North gets into your blood. When you leave, you still feel that.”

Van Norman “never recovered” from his departure from the RCMP, Sturko said. He died of AIDS in 1988, about 20 years after he was purged, when she was just 13 years old.

Prior to his death, Van Norman was a store manager, a YWCA manager, and lived in both San Francisco, Calif. and Houston, Tex. for a time.

“People always raved about, he was such a good worker and such a nice man to work with, but he never had a career like he did with the RCMP,” Sturko said.

Diagnosed in 1985, he died in Winnipeg under the care of Sturko’s grandmother and great-grandmother.

Sturko said removing stigmas such as those that remain around HIV and AIDS is another goal of the journal project.

“It’s very freeing to be able to have those type of discussions, and I think that’s why the prime minister’s (November 2017) apology was important. It sort of took something that had been in the closet and brought it out into the light, where people can deal with some of the hurt feelings.”

Sturko said she met “a lot of survivors – and thrivers” from the purge when she and her wife attended the apology. The decision to attend wasn’t to accept the apology on behalf of Van Norman, but “to bear witness to something that actually is part of our own family history,” she said.

She said family members she spoke with “believe he would’ve accepted the apology.”

“Because he was so proud of his service to the RCMP that even though he had come under a lot of hardship because of what had happened, he actually remained proud of his service and never said any negative words against the RCMP, which I find very inspiring.”

Sturko said she’s been surprised by the ripples created through the telling of her great uncle’s story. Since it came to light, people have reached out from across the country to tell her of their own connections to Van Norman.

“They told me that a lot of people knew at the time that he was gay, but they loved him and he was just such a great person and respected,” she said.

While she started off doing the project for herself, learning it was bringing people a sense of peace and closure was unexpected.

“I didn’t expect it to be helpful to anyone else,” she said.

And while for Sturko, there weren’t “a lot of deep discussions” around what happened to her great uncle while she was growing up, she said her own children know no such hesitation – regardless of the topic.

“We don’t have to talk about LGBT issues,” she said, explaining that the taboo that existed in her great uncle’s time “doesn’t exist in my children’s life.”

“There’s no question, if they want to talk about it, I’m going to talk about it with them, as with any subject. It wouldn’t be a secret.

“It’s part of their family history, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”



tholmes@peacearchnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Sgt. David Van Norman was “purged” from the RCMP in 1964, when it was still a crime in Canada to be a homosexual. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Sgt. David Van Norman was “purged” from the RCMP in 1964, when it was still a crime in Canada to be a homosexual. (Tracy Holmes photo)

In a message to his parents about life in the North, David Van Norman writes, ‘It’s an adventure into a new world which you have to live in to fully appreciate. You must toil and battle all your life to exist, but you are happy and near to God.’ (Tracy Holmes photo)

In a message to his parents about life in the North, David Van Norman writes, ‘It’s an adventure into a new world which you have to live in to fully appreciate. You must toil and battle all your life to exist, but you are happy and near to God.’ (Tracy Holmes photo)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Nov. 28, 2017 apology to LGBTQ+ Canadians. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Nov. 28, 2017 apology to LGBTQ+ Canadians. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Just Posted

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
5 more deaths, 131 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

Those 18-years and older in high-transmission neighbourhoods can register for the vaccine

Rotary Club of Salmon Arm president Norm Brown talks about the work the city’s Rotary Clubs do for the community during a Rotary 75th Anniversary event at the Blackburn Park picnic shelter on Saturday, May 8, 2021. (Lachlan Labere-Salmon Arm Observer)
Salmon Arm Rotarians mark 75th anniversary

Flags placed around Blackburn Park picnic shelter for video shoot

RCMP (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
High-risk takedown on Highway 1 following Anglemont shooting

Upon further investigation, the vehicle and its occupants were not associated with the shooting

Police watchdog find Salmon Arm RCMP have no involvement in head-on collision. (File photo)
Police watchdog finds Salmon Arm RCMP not involved in Highway 1 crash

Woman seriously injured on April 22 after head-on collision

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The southern mountain caribou, an iconic species for the Splatsin First Nation, is threatened with extinction, much to the dismay of the First Nation. (Province of B.C. photo)
Okanagan First Nation band concerned over dwindling caribou herd

Southern mountain caribou at risk of extinction, much to dismay of Splatsin First Nation near Enderby

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
UPDATE: Winfield road open following police, coroner investigation

Pelmewash Parkway closure near Highway 97 connection

Kelowna resident Sally Wallick helped rescue a kayaker in distress a week and a half ago. (Sally Wallick/Contributed)
VIDEO: Kelowna woman rescues capsized kayaker in Okanagan Lake

Sally Wallick is asking people to be prepared for the cold water and unpredictable winds

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Most Read