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.
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.”