This is the second in a four-part series about the past, present and future of our LGBTQ+ community. Click here to read part one.
Corporal Elenore Sturko is matter-of-fact as she explains her “deeper reasons” for being proud of where she’s come in her career as a Mountie.
Sitting inside Surrey’s main detachment, she recalls the story of her great uncle who was “purged” from the RCMP in 1964, when it was still a crime in Canada to be a homosexual. She says his story sheds much-needed light on the significance of her role today as a lesbian with the RCMP.
Sturko is spokeswoman of RCMP’s largest detachment today, more than 50 years after Robert David Van Norman was forced to resign over his sexual orientation, a “darker chapter” of this country’s history.
“Reconciling the history of the purge and what happened to my great uncle, and making the decision to join the RCMP has been an interesting journey,” says Sturko, who just marked one year in Surrey.
“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.”
“Our work isn’t over,” she adds, “and I’m excited, and the reason I even agreed to do this interview is I think it’s important we recognize things in our past. We haven’t always reflected the ethics and values that we do today as an inclusive and diverse police service. But we’re getting there, and it’s really great, and I’m proud to serve in the role I do here in Surrey.”
Sturko attended the historic apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to LGBTQ+ Canadians in November of 2017 – on behalf of Van Norman, who died of AIDS in 1988 – where Trudeau said sorry for decades of “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.”
As emotional as the apology was, Sturko says it was perhaps even more impactful to meet some survivors of the “purge.”
“This was something that happened across the public service, especially in the armed forces, and within the RCMP. It had a tremendous impact not just professionally but personally.”
And the impact it had on her uncle was profound, says Sturko.
“His coming out story is one where we had to explain to his family why he was expelled from his career. It was not a choice and it had negative consequences for him.”
Despite that, Sturko says he never spoke poorly about the RCMP, and always took pride in his service. He played a role in developing relationships with the Inuit during his career, even learning the local language.
“He was awarded the Queen’s coronation medal for his service with the Inuit and in the north. He rose to the rank of a Sergeant. He was a really great person.”
(Robert David Van Norman. Submitted photo)
And despite his explusion from the police service, Sturko said his service was part of the inspiration she felt to become a Mountie.
“I had four uncles who were Mounties. I just thought, how cool. To me, they were heroes. I would hear, too, the stories of Dave when he was up north he got sculptures or art, different stories and legends of my uncles in the north,” said Sturko, whose career has also included work in the north, in Yellowknife, as well as time touring with the RCMP’s Musical Ride.
She says it is unfortunate that his sexual orientation, not his service, led to the end of a promising career.
Sturko addresses the role RCMP played in investigating people suspected to be homosexual in those times, like “investigating people for their activity, interviews, surveillance, different things, those would have a great impact on people. It’s 50 years now since those laws have been stricken from the books, which is great, but we certainly have to remember and never forget our past even as we concentrate on looking forward.”
This mindset is what motivates Sturko to take part in a variety of initiatives she hopes will raise awareness and instill acceptance of those in the LGBTQ+ community.
She has done radio programs, written pieces for an RCMP publication and this past International Women’s Day, spoke at a Surrey School District event called “Empowering Voices.” Sturko was also part of one of the first national advisory committees in the RCMP focused on the LGBTQ+ community. Today, she’s preparing for another presentation that she calls “A Tale of 2 Mounties” for the Proud to be Your Friend policing conference in Toronto this June. She intends to share her “unique perspective” on being an LGBTQ+ person in the RCMP and address the parallels between her and her great uncle, and the “remarkable differences between the outcomes for their careers.”
Sturko highlights the negative relationship some policing authorities have with their pride communities, but says she’s hopeful it will change. Toronto’s pride community voted earlier this year to indefinitely bar officers from taking part. In 2018, Vancouver’s pride community banned uniforms.
“I really feel that in the future we’ll be back in uniform in parades,” she says. “But it’s going to be a process. That reconciliation of making sure that it’s not just about saying sorry, it’s about understanding what you’re sorry for and being able to really foster that two-way relationship where we hear each other.”
Sturko smiles, recalling her visit to last year’s Surrey Pride celebration where she performed karaoke for the crowd.
“It was a blast, I loved it,” she says. “I’m very lucky and I think it’s wonderful the work that’s been done to make sure that relationship is good with Surrey Pride.”
Sturko says the positive change that has occurred so far, both societally and within the RCMP, didn’t happen overnight.
“It happened as a result of activism. We can’t forget the pride associations, the people who marched,” she stressed. “Without their activism and without the legal challenges and without the support of the communities and allies. Change doesn’t just happen.”
(Corporal Elenore Sturko. Photo: Amy Reid)
LGBTQ+ milestones in Canada, Surrey
1969: Canada legalizes homosexuality.
1971: The first protests for gay rights take place in Ottawa and Vancouver.
1979: Vancouver is among the first Canadian cities to hold official pride festivals.
1988: B.C. MP Svend Robinson comes out as Canada’s first openly gay MP.
1992: The federal court lifts the ban on gays and lesbians in the military.
1997: Surrey’s school board bans three books depicting same-sex parents for use in kindergarten and Grade 1.
1999: Surrey Pride holds its first festival. And, the Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexuals in common-law relationships
2002: In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court rules that the Surrey School District should not have banned books depicting same-sex parents. The top court finds Surrey had gone against provincial legislation.
2005: Bill C-38 becomes federal law, making it legal for same-sex couples to marry.
2013: The House of Commons passes Bill C-270, a private members bill, which extends human rights protections to transgender and transsexual people in Canada.
2014: Surrey elects its first openly gay councillor, Vera LeFranc of Surrey First.
2016: A pride flag was raised on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the first time.
2017: Bill C-16 passes, updating the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression.”
2019 is the 50th year since Canada decriminalized homosexuality, and a commemorative $1 coin is to be released.
COMING UP NEXT: We explore the local drag scene, and the history of the Empire of the Peace Arch Monarchist Association, Surrey’s branch of the International Court System, an LGBTQ+ focused organization that elects leaders with various monarchist titles to lead charitable efforts.