Thursday, February 14, 2002

Norm Elder was what you'd call a real Toronto character.

Although he was also a successful equestrian, author and mayoral candidate, I knew him as a well-travelled anthropologist who ran his house as a sort of quasi museum/school for children. When I was eleven, I used to go there on Saturdays (yes, there was a time where I willingly went to an *extra* day of school!) to attend his wildly popular "Exploring the World's Jungles" course. Smaller kids went for a ride on Tony the Tortoise, while the bigger kids played with Peter the Python. There were tarantulas in a glass case above the toilet, and his basement was a recreation of Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom. I have a vivid memory of one sunny day in May or June sitting out in his garden with all his animals while he told us stories about Africa. We hung off his every word, and at the time I thought he was the coolest adult I'd ever known. (that may have been partly because he was also the only person who would put his arm in a huge jar of mosquitoes for an insect repellent advert!)

Here's a quote from an article that gives you a bit more of an idea:
Elder later moved his eclectic collection to Bedford Rd., a posh neighbourhood near Avenue Rd. and Bloor St.

All surfaces of the three-storey brick house are covered with unusual artefacts, including human skulls, shrunken heads, a camel's bladder and a stuffed rooster.

There's a piece of hardened elephant dung on the coffee table. David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch was filmed at the house.

At one time, Elder kept four monkeys, a six-foot boa constrictor and a 200-pound pig named Henry in his basement.

Elder, who has admitted to eating monkey brains and broiled bat, was once quoted as saying: "What bothers me most about going to zoos is that I've tasted most of the animals in there."
Fast forward to last week, when I get a letter from my old friend Kevin. He makes a reference to Norm Elder's conviction...for sexual assault involving teenage boys. I'm in absolute shock. I have to know more.

The articles that come up on Lexis Nexis (clippings subscription service) start in 1997, well before I moved over. I can honestly say I didn't notice them at the time - my only excuse is that at that point in my life I was travelling and/or leading a clubbing hedonistic lifestyle, so reading newspapers beyond the front page wasn't a priority.

In a nutshell, Norm had a habit of either offering a safe haven for young homeless boys, or asking other young men to come to his cottage in Muskoka. By young, we're talking 16. Much like the Gehring case in the press at the moment (Canadian school teacher). The main difference being that as far as the reports go, Norm forced himself on the boys - often while they were asleep. One said he'd wake up clutching $100 bills. Oddly the articles make no reference to his work with children - he is exclusively referred to as an equestrian in the headlines of all except the first few early articles.

After a lengthy court case, Norm was acquitted of some charges but received a two-year sentence for others, which would be upheld in the spring of 1999 after an appeal. In May of the same year eleven men launched a $4 million lawsuit against him.

Towards the bottom of the Nexis Lexis list, countless cheerful - earlier - articles, including one jolly interview with Norm from 1986. He pays tribute to Tony the Tortoise, who died in 1986, aged 80 - not long after my last trip to Norm's house. The contrast depresses me.

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