RCMP Cpl. El Sturko wore the only red serge in the crowd the day the Prime Minister apologized for "the purge"— a decades-long span when the government forced employees to leave their jobs because of their sexuality.
Sturko, herself a member of the LGBT community, attended the 2017 apology in memory of her late great-uncle, Sgt. Robert David Van Norman, whose 17-year RCMP career came to an abrupt end in 1964 when the organization learned he was gay.
By then, he had worked across Canada and his three younger brothers joined the force in his footsteps.
Van Norman, who worked among the Inuit in what is now Nunavut, documented his 1950 Pond Inlet posting with a journal containing photographs and notes highlighting the Inuit and life in the High Arctic.
Now, Sturko has begun digitizing the journal and its photographs in the name of reconciliation — reconciliation with the RCMP for her family and a gesture of reconciliation with the Inuit.
"It's my tribute to David and the shared history of the RCMP and the Inuit," she says.
Sturko's project recognizes the organization's checkered past with LGBT communities and Inuit while highlighting the progress made over decades.
Van Norman's photos showcase traditional activities and include Inuit Special Constables Joanasie Arreak and Lazaroosie Kyak, the latter an Order of Canada recipient who guided RCMP officers through Arctic territory and survival.
Sturko will share the journal with northern communities. She's partnered with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), an organization representing Inuit in the eastern Arctic, to translate the journal into Inuktitut and distribute it online.
Van Norman, who could speak Inuktitut, earned a Queen's Coronation medal for his work in the North and a QIA report calls him a respectful officer at a time when racism was prevalent.
He reported the exploitation Inuit women experienced at the hands of men constructing the Distant Early Warning Line, stories that may not have been recorded without his reports.
"He really felt a connection to Inuit culture and a passion for the North," says Sturko. "He believed in treating people appropriately and working in partnership with the Inuit."
Pointing to progress
While the Prime Minister's apology came 55 years after Van Norman was ousted from his job, Sturko says he would have accepted the apology. He never spoke ill of the organization, despite the personal turmoil he experienced upon leaving.
"Dave looked at it as there's nothing you can do about it so he carried on, but he never really took on a full career after that," says Jack Van Norman, the youngest Van Norman brother who retired in 1994 after 32 years with the RCMP. "You might say it damn near broke him to have to leave the force."
For Sturko, part of the project is acknowledging change.
"We've come so far from a place where people who were LGBT were fired from the force to a time where not only do I work for the RCMP, but I'm a spokesperson for the RCMP," says Sturko, a media relations officer in Surrey, B.C., the RCMP's largest detachment.
"It's vital to mark the positive changes in Canada over the last decades," says Michelle Douglas, executive director of the LGBT Purge Fund and former Canadian Armed Forces member who led a court challenge after being fired for her sexuality. "Canada has taken very deliberate steps towards healing and reconciliation and El's work is part of that."
Sturko is working on the journal's finishing touches before sending it for translation and having it published.
"I like to share the story to show how the situation has improved and I think that's in keeping with my uncle's wishes because he really loved the RCMP," she says.