British Columbia

Pride event in Surrey stirs memories of homophobia

Two prominent members of Surrey's LGBT community share their stories to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada.

Stories prove Canada has come far since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969

Surrey RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Elenore Sturko's uncle was also an RCMP officer who was fired for his sexual orientation. Sturko reflected on his experiences and her own at a pride event at SFU Surrey. (CBC News)

The annual summer pride festival in Surrey is a time for celebration, but Martin Rooney remembers when it was a time of fear.

Rooney, the founder of the Surrey Pride Society, shared his experience at an event held Tuesday at Simon Fraser University in Surrey that marked the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, but Surrey did not hold its first pride event until 1999. Rooney was there and recalled an RCMP patrol car circling the parking lot at the community hall where people had gathered to celebrate.

Rooney said the police were on high alert then because of the threat of violence to the gay community from Hells Angels and white supremacist groups.

Surrey Pride Society founder Martin Rooney remembers when it was risky to engage in pride activities in the community. (CBC News)

Surrey RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Elenore Sturko also spoke at the event. Sturko comes from a long line of law enforcers —  three of her uncles, three cousins and a late great uncle were all police officers. It was her great uncle, Robert David Van Norman, that Sturko reflected on.

The purge

Van Norman was forced to resign from the RCMP in 1964, five years before homosexuality was decriminalized, because of his sexual orientation.

Sturko has a lot in common with Van Norman. Not only did they both aspire to be police officers, Sturko is also gay. The difference for Sturko: her sexual orientation is no longer grounds for firing.

Sturko said it was a big moment for her family when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in 2017 for what was called "the purge", when people like Van Norman were fired for their sexual preferences.

He would have accepted the apology, said Sturko. "He never said anything bad about the RCMP and remained proud until his death."

Jesse Johnston, The Early Edition

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