An Abuse Of Privilege?

Police say the wealthy and eccentric owner of a Bedford Road museum and rooming house sexually assaulted young men over a period of 17 years. Others say he is a victim of unfair persecution. Norman Elder isn’t saying anything.

By David South

Annex Gleaner (Toronto, Canada), May 1997

The tattered sign on the door is barely noticeable, and its message gives little away: “Dr Elder has moved to Fort Torrance, Ontario. Sorry no tours.”

I peek in the window of the Norman Elder Museum on Bedford Road and see the eyes of a zebra staring back at me. To the left are formaldehyde jars filled with oddly shaped objects.

While Norman Elder, amateur anthropologist and full-time Annex eccentric, may be hiding at his Muskoka cottage, he has left behind a community stunned by police allegations that he sexually abused young men. His story is one of a man born into wealth who cultivated an image of eccentricity as carefully as he surrounded himself with the things he loved.

According to police, the assaults took place at Elder’s 140 Bedford home – a brooding Victorian mansion that’s one part rooming house, another part museum holding his large collection of artifacts plucked from the world’s tribes.

Detective Robert Mann of Metro’s 32 Division Youth Bureau says Elder has been charged with 12 counts of indecent assault/male, spanning 1972 to 1989.

“Some were minors, some were adults over the age of 16. Most were adolescent and teenage males between the ages of 15 and 19.” While the charges laid were at the end of February, police have still not disclosed the details. Without that information, Elder hasn’t entered a plea.

Last Wednesday, I walked past the gravestone that marks the front yard and approached three young men having a cigarette outside the house. Two of them said they lived in the house. One man with a skinhead hairstyle who looked to be in his mid-20s nervously said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He admitted he was taking messages for Elder from the answering machine and had passed on my numerous calls. Calls to his cottage weren’t answered, and none of Elder’s friends and acquaintances contacted by The Gleaner wished to comment on the charges.

Mann alleges that Elder’s modus operandi was to offer homeless youths a place to stay in return for sexual favours. The multiple charges stem from men contacting police after reading articles in Toronto’s two dailies about the first charge, which was laid in February.

Elder’s trip to the cottage isn’t a case of spring fever; he is out on bail and has been court-ordered to not return to his house.

Off the record, several sources suspected that some of the young men living at the house were involved in the sex trade and weren’t innocent of trading sexual favours for a place to stay. In the language of the street, they say, Elder was a sugar daddy. Some acquaintances of Elder felt he was being unfairly persecuted by police for sexual acts that took place between consenting adults (though, legally, the homosexual age of consent is 18, while for heterosexuals it’s 16). They also questioned the validity of charges that are in some cases 25 years old and only ferreted out by police during the Maple Leaf Gardens scandal.

Elder may be an eccentric, but he is not a loner; nor did he keep a low profile. Elder was born into wealth and attended Upper Canada College with the likes of Conrad Black, whom he once called a friend. He is listed in the Who’s Who in the World and Who’s Who in Canada. He financed his globe-trotting expeditions by selling artifacts collected in the Amazon, Africa and Borneo to museums, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He filled his house with exotic animals, including a 20-foot, 400-pound python called Peter.

As a one-man National Geographic magazine, Elder has self-published several books on his travels and made documentaries. His house served as location for David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch. He once told a journalist. “What bothers me most about going to zoos is that I’ve tasted most of the animals in there.”

In 1979, an article in The Toronto Star weekend magazine described Elder as a “slightly balding, surprisingly genial guy, who looks a bit like Jack Nicholson … and speaks a bit mezzo forte for a 20th-century Victorian.”

The former Olympic equestrian rider has had a long association with running rooming houses for youth that dates back to the 60s. When he was a social worker in Yorkville’s hippie days, Elder boasted of having 6,000 kids crash at his place in 1969.

In the 70s, he had political aspirations, running for city council and for the provincial NDP. He was friends with late New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield, who was also dogged by rumours about his relationships with young men.