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.
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.
Update: “In 1998, Elder pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting 10 young men between 1970 and 1980. On March 12, 1998, Judge Faith Finnestad sentenced Elder to two years less a day in jail.”
“Elder died on Wednesday, October 15, 2003 in Toronto of an apparent suicide by hanging.” (Source: Wikipedia).
I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM).
This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.
Could it be possible to do high-quality investigative journalism in the context of a shrinking economy undergoing austerity, and where the media sector is contracting and consolidating around a small number of media companies? Is it possible to launch new media products in the face of a contracting economy and reach new audiences and create new markets?
In Canada, the early to mid 1990s were the years of government austerity and economic crisis. After the crash of 1989/1990*, institutions came under great stress. Health care, for example, was pitched into a period of turmoil and change. Drawing on my experience working in the health sector (Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute), I covered this crisis in many stories for various publications, in particular Today’s Seniors.
The Canadian economy severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada says, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.
The media in general could not avoid the wider economic crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage. Canadian media as a whole also has a “great dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 70% of daily newspaper revenues, about 64% of magazine revenues,” which means there is enormous pressure to only publish stories that do not upset advertisers. And monopolies exert great control over news content in Canada: “In the United States, ten companies control 43.7% of total daily newspaper circulation. By contrast, in Canada since 1996, one single company controls a comparable share of the media pie.”
The impact of this crisis was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the book The Missing News, where he said newspapers are “shrinking in size, personnel, ambition and, as a consequence, in their curiosity,” …. “I believe the result has been a diminution in quality.” (p64)
This is the context in which, ironically, it was possible to flourish as a much-sought-after investigative journalist who could get the story and get the quotes and as an editor. And it was also a time for opportunity, in particular as new media rose in importance, from cable and satellite television, to the rise of the Internet.
I broke original stories for Now Magazine as a member of their investigative reporting team, for Today’s Seniors as its Medical and Health Correspondent, and as a reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK. I also broke original stories as a freelancer for many other magazines and newspapers, including Hospital News, The Toronto Star, This Magazine, The Annex Gleaner, Flare, The Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, and others. I drew on strong contacts in health care, media, politics, international relations and the military.
I was an editor for magazines, newspapers and newsletters as well, gaining invaluable experience and contacts. This included as Editor-in-Chief for start-up youth publication, Watch Magazine (see Case Study 2), and as Features Editor for Id Magazine (see Case Study 3).
Themes covered included the uses – and abuses – of data, the impact of military engagements to uphold international law, how to re-structure health care when budgets are tight, with populations ageing, and technology and scientific advances quickly expanding options, the emerging new media world of cable and satellite television and the Internet, the sexual revolution 2.0, urbanization and how it re-shapes politics and community, international development, and youth culture.
Story highlights include covering data concerns over Canada’s border screening measures, questions about the air quality of aircraft cabins, the debate over airstrikes in Bosnia, scandals involving peacekeepers in Somalia and reporting on the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, reforms to medical education in Canada, innovators in health care, the tug of war over health care spending during austerity measures, London, UK designers, the growing role of Nordic countries in cable and satellite television, the film financing scene in Europe and the UK, the new sexual revolution and its impact on cable and satellite television and the rising Internet, changes to Canada’s media industry, and Toronto’s embracing of the megacity concept and the political battles it sparked.
I edited newsletters and newspapers aimed at specific communities, from Canada’s medical history community to part-time students. And had the privilege of helming a start-up youth magazine as its Editor-in-Chief to its commercial success (see Case Study 2).
* “The last two recessions in Canada occurred in 1982 and 1990. … The most recent Canadian recession began in the second quarter of 1990 and over the next 12 months GDP fell by 3.2%. … The recovery from this recession was unusually slow; there was almost no growth between mid-1991 and mid-1992. This slow recovery was export driven.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
“In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems.
“… the recession here was more severe than in the United States.
“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession and, in many instances, wages and salaries were frozen or reduced (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)
A small sample of published stories with links is below:
1991: Begin career as investigative journalist and editor.
1992: Work as a Medical and Health Reporter for Today’s Seniors and as an Investigative Journalist for Now Magazine. Work as Editor and Writer for the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine’s newsletter.
1993: Published in many publications, including The Toronto Star, Canadian Living and This Magazine.
1994: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 2.0 and its expansion (see Case Study 2).
1995: Work as reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK.
1996: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 3.0 and its expansion. Begin work at Id Magazine as its Features Editor (see Case Study 3).
1997: Begin two-year assignment with the United Nations mission in Mongolia (see Case Study 4).
“David South … proved himself to be a penetrating, thorough and hard-working journalist. He produced a lot of very good stories …” Neil McCartney, Editor, Screen Finance, Telecom Markets and Mobile Communications, London, UK
Toronto’s innovative crime-fighting and crime-prevention experiments face elimination if and when the city is swallowed up by the monolithic megacity. And the Annex’s status as one of Toronto’s safest neighbourhoods could be destroyed by the resulting tax increases.
Since the late 1980s, thinking about crime in Toronto has focused on public safety rather than just cops in cars. Taking what can be called a holistic approach, the city has poured millions into public health programs, street lighting, safety audits and social services, and it has led the region in putting cops back on foot patrol.
Carolyn Whitzman, coordinator of the Safe City Committee – founded in 1989 and a symbol of that attitude change – worries many of the services will find their funds cut or their street-level approach altered.
“I don’t know if people in Toronto realize how privileged they are,” she says. “All these programs have led us to be one of the safest cities in the world. There is nothing like the Safe City Committee in surrounding municipalities. There is nothing like it at Metro – though they do fund safety initiatives.”
The Safe City Committee was the first of its kind in North America and subsequently has been copied by other cities. Initiatives funded by the committee include pamphlets on ending sibling violence, self-defense tips for volunteer workers, a youth drop-in centre at Dufferin Mall an community safety audits.
Whitzman also worries the new meagcity will follow the advice of government consultants KPMG, who recommended replacing some police duties with volunteer labour.
“They recommended store fronts (community police booths) and reporting of accidents be run by volunteers. What if you want a police officer?”
Whitzman also doesn’t like plans to encourage police to spend more time in their cars filing reports on laptop computers. She would rather see them out on the beat.
She also fears school safety programs, like extra lighting, will be jettisoned as school boards chase savings. This also applies to the TTC and public housing. (Whitzman says some housing projects have already cut security due to provincial funding reductions.)
Another factor could jeopardize the Annex’s status as one of the safest neighbourhoods in the city. Higher taxes may chase out homeowners, and the Annex many once again become a haven for transient populations living in rooming houses, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Joe Page, a crime analyst at 52 Division for the past quarter century, the Annex had the dubious reputation in the late 1970s of being the busiest neighbourhood in Toronto for police.
It’s a different story today. For example, in the portion of the Annex between Avenue Road and Spadina Road from Dupont south to Bloor, there was one murder in 1995 and none in 1996, and major assaults were down from nine in 1995 to five in 1996. There was one murder in the Little Italy area west of Bathurst in 1996.
If there is a good side to rising crime rates in the surrounding municipalities, it’s that councillors there can no longer ignore public safety issues. This could mean greater sympathy for Toronto’s plight from once-smug suburban councillors.
Whitzman sees hypocrisy in the attitudes of many of the satellite cities. “Scarborough has a bad reputation and other municipalities are not immune to safety issues.”
The Harris government’s proposed megacity is stirring up fear, rumour and speculation in many quarters, and no group is more worried than Toronto’s artists.
The merger of Toronto into a new megacity will place arts funding in jeopardy. Toronto’s generous contributions to the arts far exceed those of any other municipality in the region, meaning the city’s artists could be devastated if Toronto receives only a sixth of a new mega arts budget.
Currently, Annex-based artists and arts groups can turn to two levels of municipal funding: the City of Toronto and Metro Toronto.
Even at the Metro level, Toronto artists receive the bulk of arts funding, and a healthy share of that money goes to individuals and groups based in the Annex.
Alas, the Annex’s vibrant milieu of resident artists, festivals and respected institutions is small comfort to many arts supporters who fear the indifference of politicians from the satellite cities and the cost-cutting measures of the Tories.
They worry because the budget of the Toronto Arts Council, which will be eliminated under amalgamation, far exceeds the contributions to the arts made by the surrounding cities. In 1996, Toronto’s arts budget was $4.7 million, compared to $325,905 for the five other Metro municipalities combined.
Many fear Toronto’s superior cultural activities will simply be overlooked by philistine councillors from Metro’s satellite cities.
Tarragon Theatre general manager Mallory Gilbert, a former resident of Detroit who witnessed first-hand that city’s decline, worries Toronto could go the same way.
“Once you get a population that doesn’t work or entertain downtown, they will just want an expressway through the city.”
As Gilbert sees it, those voters who never patronize the arts in downtown Toronto are going to pressure politicians not to fund them. Gilbert also worries that suburban councillors will demand quotas to ensure arts funding is redirected away from downtown Toronto.
Anne Bermonte, associate director for the Toronto Arts Council, also fears downtown artists will be lost in the megacity abyss.
“The political make-up will resemble Metro rather than Toronto – the councillors who realize the arts accrue benefits will be out-voted.”
Not surprisingly, officials at Metro don’t think downtown will be neglected. John Elvidge, cultural affairs officer at Metro Parks and Culture, doesn’t believe suburban politicians will pull money out of the core of the city. He says this never happened in the past and sees no reason why it would in the future.
“The 28 councillors from the geographic area understand the core of arts is in the downtown. Look at our almost 40-year-funding history: 90 per cent is based in Toronto organizations. If you are a councillor in Etobicoke, you know people go downtown. (North York councillor) Howard Moscoe is the biggest supporter of the arts.”
Statistics show the Annex has a strong competitive advantage over other areas when it comes to receiving arts grants. Bermonte estimates the Annex area currently receives close to $400,000 in grants in the course of a year, from both Metro and Toronto. While half of the Metro culture budget goes to the “big four” (the Toronto Symphony, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company), the Annex receives 10 per cent of the remaining $3 million, estimates Elvidge. Out of the combined Metro and Toronto budgets of $10.7 million, the Annex receives just under five per cent. All for a population of 36,000.
“There are a lot of artists who live in the Annex area,” says Bermonte. “And the Annex enjoys the economic impact of the presence of those activities. If the Fringe disappeared, there wouldn’t be the animation in the area.”
Unfortunately for artists, the past five years have seen shrinking arts budgets at all levels of government.
While TAC has held on to its current funding level since 1994, Bermonte is worried this could change. TAC’s highest funding level was in 1991, when the board received $5.5 million. Metro has seen its budget drop from $7.5 million in 1993 to today’s $6 million. Both budgets are up for review, with Metro’s expected to drop by a further five per cent.
If the megacity goes through, Bermonte hopes the new municipality will commit to arts funding levels appropriate for a modern, cultured city. She points out that London, England spends $30 million, while Berlin, Germany spends $930 million on culture.
As Gilbert says, if the arts aren’t funded, the Annex will become less interesting to the many notables living here, such as writers Margaret Atwood, Rick Salutin, Judith Thompson, Stuart Ross and MT Kelly.
Deputations will take place at City Hall on Feb. 17 to defend the Toronto Arts Council’s 1997 budget.