British Columbia

RCMP officer finally honoured 55 years after he was forced to resign for being gay

RCMP Sgt. R.D. Van Norman was one many police officers, military personnel and public service employees who lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. His great niece, also an RCMP officer, is making known the story of his work in the Arctic.

Great-niece, also an RCMP officer, to publish journal chronicling his time in Canada's Arctic in the 1950s

In her home in South Surrey, B.C., RCMP Cpl. Elenore Sturko looks through a journal her uncle Dave made while stationed in the North. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Her family doesn't like the moustache — it's thin and separated by a tiny gap just below the nose —  but Cpl. Elenore Sturko loves the photograph of her great uncle that's on display in her living room.

Sturko, a spokesperson for the Surrey RCMP, located just east of Vancouver, gets a kick out of the fur collar that swallows up the neck of Sgt. R.D. Van Norman, whom she always knew as uncle Dave.

"He looks like an explorer," she said.

"It's like something out of the 1800s."

Van Norman, the eldest of four brothers from Manitoba who all became Mounties, joined the RCMP in 1947.

He was forced to resign 17 years later when he was spotted at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, which was a known hangout for homosexuals.

Van Norman was one many police officers, military personnel and public service employees who lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

He died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 60.

Photos of Sgt. R.D. Van Norman are displayed in his great niece Cpl. Elenore Sturko's living room. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The apology

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in 2017 for what is now called the LGBT purge, Sturko travelled to Ottawa to hear it in person.

Dressed in her red serge, seated next to her wife, Melissa, Sturko grew inspired to learn more about her great uncle's history.

"It affected me," she said.

"It really got me thinking about how my uncle had been impacted and how my entire family had been impacted."

Then she learned that her great uncle Jack had kept his brother's journal in his basement.

The book changed her life and now she hopes it will also change the way her uncle's life is remembered.

Van Norman was a gifted photographer who took portraits of the people he met while he was stationed in Canada's North. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Sgt. R.D. Van Norman

Van Norman learned to speak Inuktitut and immersed himself in the local culture when he was stationed in the northern communities of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Iqaluit, Fort Smith, N.W.T., and Yellowknife during the 1950s.

Sturko says some of the language Van Norman uses in the book is outdated, but it's clear that he had a deep admiration for the local people and their culture.

His pictures capture everyday life of the time.

He received the Queen's Coronation Medal for his work on on the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW line), which was a radar defence system designed in the early 1950s to detect Soviet bombers.

It was the relationships he built doing community police work, however, that Sturko says he seemed to enjoy the most.

He would occasionally hitch rides from locals on their dog sleds to do patrols.

"Although he was working as an agent of the government at a time that deeply impacted the Inuit, the colonization of the North, he was also a protector of the people he was serving," she said.

"I was so proud."

She says Van Norman's career was impressive and should have been celebrated, but because of the purge, it was swept under the rug and forgotten.

RCMP Cpl. Sturko looks at old newspaper clippings in her South Surrey home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'A quantum leap'

To spread her great uncle's story, Sturko transcribed his words, copied his photographs and made them into a book of her own that is now almost ready to publish.

Sturko found a translator through the Qikiqtani Inuit Association so that her uncle's words will appear in Inuktitut next to the English text.

She plans to give free copies to people in the communities where Van Norman was stationed.

To pay for the translation and printing, Sturko received a $17,000 grant from the LGBT Purge Fund.

Fund director Wayne Davis says this is exactly the kind of project his organization was created to support.

"The very concept that someone has a great uncle who was fired from the RCMP and she is now the public spokesperson, as an out lesbian, for the Surrey RCMP?" he said.

"That's a quantum leap."

Van Norman made the cover for the book out of a tea tin. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Closing the loop

The fact that Sturko is the face of the largest detachment in the country shows how far the RCMP has come since her uncle lost his job for being who he was.

She says there is still work to do, however, and she hopes the book opens people's eyes to the kind of talented people who lost their livelihoods to the purge.

"It's not a perfect world by any means," she said.

"Looking at what happened to my uncle and then seeing where I am today is really, really meaningful," she said.

There are other goals for the project, too, like inspiring people to learn more about the history of the Indigenous people of Canada's North.

All proceeds will go toward initiatives laid out by elders in the communities where Van Norman served.

On a personal level, though, publishing the book is also about celebrating the impressive career of an RCMP officer that has largely been lost to history.

Telling that story is important to Sturko, and perhaps even more so to her great uncle Jack.

They both plan to travel to Iqaluit next spring where a plaque will be dedicated to Sgt. R.D. Van Norman.

"He was an exceptional member," Sturko said.

"I wanted to do something to commemorate his service."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story identified Sgt. R.D. Van Norman as Sgt. R.A. Van Norman.
    Nov 21, 2019 10:27 AM PT

About the Author

Jesse Johnston covers stories South of the Fraser. Catch him on The Early Edition every Wednesday at 7:40 a.m. @Jesse_Johnston

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