‘Godlike’ Quest teacher faces sex charges

The whispers that began about the Prince of Wales outdoor program Quest 30 years ago will air publicly in a criminal hearing

Whispers that began three decades ago about an unusual outdoor education program in a prestigious Vancouver high school is to finally be examined next week when an ex-teacher is scheduled to face allegations of sexual misconduct against several of his former students.

Some say the case in Vancouver Provincial Court will be like a Prince of Wales high school reunion as students, parents, teachers and administrators recall heady days in the 1970s and ’80s when Quest was the school’s flagship program and teenagers came from miles around to be part of the action.

It was only after Quest was long gone that some former students — now parents with their own children — took their high school memories to police, touching off a lengthy investigation that led to 16 sex-related charges against Tom Ellison, 63, now an outdoor adventure guide.

But The Vancouver Sun has learned the school was bubbling in the mid-1980s with rumours about Quest, and the vice-principal of the day, Ted Hunt, made it his mission to bring it to an end. He succeeded and years later — when the rumours had seemingly died down — wrote a fictional screenplay resembling the Quest story.

Knowing the end was near in 1987, the teachers had T-shirts made for their students with the Quest emblem and the letters TBAGBTLLO — “The boys are gone but their legend lives on.”

The words proved prophetic.

While Ellison is scheduled for trial on Tuesday, his long-time colleagues — Dean Hull and Stan Callegari — are being investigated by the B.C. College of Teachers for professional misconduct during the Quest years.

The criminal charges and the media stories that followed have created a sharp divide between former students with strikingly different memories about their experiences in the program.

What next week’s court hearing may finally explain is why rumours about Quest were left for years to swirl through the school and its upscale Arbutus neighbourhood, especially when many of the students had influential parents, including politicians, judges, prominent lawyers and senior school board officials.

The explanation from the school district was that the program was terminated because its emphasis on the outdoors meant academic subjects didn’t get proper attention. It was replaced by a program called Trek, which did a better job of balancing the two, and continues to this day.

Hunt, who later became a school board trustee, declined to be interviewed because he will be testifying at Ellison’s trial, but suggested the real story — when finally pulled from the shadows — will be riveting.

Indeed, Hunt was so moved by what transpired at Prince of Wales that he wrote a fictional screenplay called the Flame Within, which won a Praxis screenplay competition in 2003. The award is listed on the Praxis website, which describes the script this way: “A talented high school runner is recruited into a high school wilderness adventure program. After a horrific camping trip, she’s afraid to reveal the truth about its charismatic leader and brainwashed students until her coach discovers their diabolical secret.”

Back in the Quest days, other Prince of Wales teachers were asking questions about the program and its teachers, who didn’t seem bound by the usual rules — whether they were teaching in the classroom or guiding their students through backwoods.

A few parents were vaguely uneasy with what they observed.

Mary Saunders, whose three daughters went through Quest, said she was initially impressed with the program — she still calls it wonderful — but began to have misgivings, especially after one of her girls started bringing home Ellison’s laundry.

“I just thought they were schoolgirl crushes,” she said. “I wish I hadn’t been so naive.”

She said a school board official called her once during Quest’s early years to ask if she had heard any rumours but she told him no. “Since he called me, they must have had some suspicions. But a lot of the parents … were thrilled to death about these guys taking such an interest in their daughters.”

Tim Price was in Quest in 1984 briefly, due to a run-in with Ellison, and subsequently wrote an essay during English class about the program — the nude sunbathing, the girls hanging around Ellison’s boat, the sexual jokes.

Price said his teacher took the essay to the office and he was called in to explain but he didn’t hear anything further.

“I knew back then — everyone knew back then — what was going on,” he said. “When I talk about it, I get really frustrated because it shouldn’t have been allowed.”

For some students, the hip teachers were mentors who inspired them, taught them to appreciate the outdoors and gave their young lives focus. For others, especially some girls who were struggling to find their way as women, they were more than mentors. They were like gods.

For one semester, the 15- and 16-year-old students in Quest shared an intense experience with their teachers — hiking in the backwoods, sleeping in snow caves and canoeing around Bowron Lakes. Many said it changed their lives, transformed them into environmentalists and pushed them to succeed.

Others say it drove them to therapy.

And in response to an unusual appeal by Vancouver police three weeks ago for more information, more than 20 new people came forward.

On one point, most former Quest students agree: The program — described as part Outward Bound, part Greenpeace activism — brought a spark of excitement into the middle-class lives of students who had not previously called teachers by their first names, let alone shared raunchy jokes with them or stripped naked for sunbathing.

“Part of the purpose of the Quest program … was to shake the students, male and female, out of their complacency,” former student Brian Broeke said. “I disagree vehemently that there was ever any intentional abuse of any kind. The teachers all had great respect for their students.”

Jim McEwan, a student in Quest during its inaugural year, said the friendships, experiences and memories are some of the best and most cherished of his life. “I feel sorry for the students who may never get the opportunity to experience a Quest program. They’ll never know how good school can be.”

Jessie Smith was in Quest in 1983/84, and recalls both good and uncomfortable times.

“Quest was both wonderfully fun and horribly manipulative. Even at the time I knew all three teachers behaved in inappropriate ways. Tom once remarked that he could see my breasts during a workout. He told my boyfriend that I had [a venereal disease]. He commented on the size of my boyfriend’s genitals,” Smith said.

“At the time I thought it was odd that my teachers spent so much of their after-school hours and weekends hanging out with ex-Questers who were 16 to 18 years old. Now I see that it gave them such an ego boost because they were treated like gods.”

Kathryn Pedersen was among the students who “idolized” Ellison in the 1975/76 Quest program.

“Everybody wanted to please him, he was so cool and young,” recalled Pedersen, a counsellor at a local elementary school.

But today her memories also include sexual harassment.

“We were quite encouraged to skinny dip [on camping trips]. So, the girls went off and skinny dipped while the boys watched through their binoculars,” she said. “He [Ellison] would get us to run stairs in the hallways if it was raining out, and he would say to all the girls when we ran by, ‘Shake those tomatoes.’ ”

As a teenager in the mid-1970s, Pedersen said it didn’t occur to her to ask her teacher to stop. “You giggled, and tried to pretend that we found it flattering.”

Pedersen said her mother recently told her she thought the tomatoes comment was improper but didn’t think it was her place as a parent to complain.

“I was thinking back, maybe the west side was the perfect place to do this because everybody is very proper, and people are just going to expect professionals to be proper,” she said.

Some of the students in Quest were the sons and daughters of prominent citizens, such as former lieutenant-governor Garde Gardom and former Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell.

It was also attended by children of people who at one point held senior positions with the Vancouver school board, such as former communications director Chuck Gosbee and former school board trustee (and high-profile tax lawyer) Jacques Barbeau.

Campbell served as Vancouver mayor from 1967 to 1972, and two years later his daughter Rachel entered the first year of Quest.

Rachel Campbell said nothing inappropriate happened to her, but she felt the teachers were too “cuddly” with the students. “I was uncomfortable with the fact that it was very friendly. Certainly some of the girls seemed to have crushes on these men.”

She described herself as an innocent child who didn’t speak about those uncomfortable feelings, and laughed that her parents were also innocent and didn’t voice concerns about Quest.

However, now that she’s a parent herself, she feels differently — especially about class camping trips that don’t include female staff. “Taking a very long view looking back, I can see as an adult, I wouldn’t want my children in that situation,” she said.

When asked in a Prince of Wales re-union book what she wouldn’t allow her children to do in high school, she wrote: “To camp, unsupervised, with young male teachers.”

Anne Guthrie Warman, vice-president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association, who worked at Prince of Wales years after Quest ended, agreed there was some knowledge but she didn’t know how much.

“There was this oral history in the school about it … but it was all rather general,” Warman said.

“There were some very strange things going on that were probably crossing the line and today would be considered absolutely verboten. Today, that wouldn’t be tolerated for a second.”

At the time, students placed enormous trust in their teachers.

“It was the age of innocence,” school board chairman Ken Denike recalled of the 1970s and early ’80s. But that innocence was shattered in 1985 with the arrest of Robert Noyes, a B.C. principal and teacher who abused children for years.

The Noyes case was followed by four or five others, which created some panic in the province, said Pat Clarke, director of professional development for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Previously, it was believed teachers knew “instinctively” about the boundaries with students and that groping was not allowed. After Noyes, such assumptions changed, he added.

As well, the ’70s and early ’80s were a time of changing sexual attitudes. Clarke, who began teaching in Kelowna in 1975, said reports of nude sunbathing, while unusual, wouldn’t have been particularly shocking.

Some schools were experimenting with different educational models, too, and Quest was “a real hood ornament” for Prince of Wales. “It was considered very progressive — an attempt to make education more relevant and interesting.”

Denike said he heard sex stories linked to Quest when he joined the board in 1984 but believed they were history by then. For much of that decade, the board was in disarray and consumed by politics due to the battles over Bennett government restrain measures.

Ellison’s lawyer, Bill Smart, has said the issue at trial will be whether his client’s conduct was a criminal act under the law of the day.

“While Mr. Ellison accepts what he did 25 to 30 years ago was unprofessional, it will have to be decided whether his conduct was criminal, based on the law at the time,” he said.

For two decades, Ellison has run chartered boat tours on his yacht on the northern B.C. coast.

The company’s website says he “initiated grizzly bear and spirit bear programs on the B.C. coast and has guided more people in bear country than anyone else.”

Renown bear expert Charlie Russell, in his book Grizzly Heart, raves about a trip on Ellison’s boat: “Tom is a tall, good-looking man who once supplemented his university funds modelling for the Eaton’s catalogue, and he takes his captain’s responsibilities seriously.”

David Suzuki’s former TV show, The Nature of Things, chartered Ellison’s boat for an episode, and also spoke to Quest students who had discovered the outdoors on his yacht.

“[They] had been transformed by the experience. It was very moving to see how city kids could be changed by an experience with nature,” Suzuki wrote in an e-mail from Australia, where he is on a book promotion. “[They] were keen and had been influenced by their experiences in nature. I would say he had a positive effect on the students’ appreciation of nature.”

Working with Ellison on his boat is former Quest student Jenn Broom, his partner of many years, with whom he has a daughter. He was 40 when Broom entered Quest in 1983/84.

Ellison was not the only Quest teacher to link up romantically with a one-time student.

Hull was 42 when he met Judy Maranda as she entered Quest in 1981/82. They had a long-term relationship which has since ended.

Callegari is still married to former Quest student Allison Higgins, who was also in the program in 1981/82.

Many of the teachers who were involved in Quest still have strong ties to the outdoors — and to each other.

Quest founder Chris Harris formed a company called Pathways with Hull, and the two have been guiding canoe trips on the Bowron Lakes chain for more than 25 years.

Harris is also a nature photographer who has published multiple books, including one on the Bowron Lakes on which he collaborated with Hull and former Quest teacher Jim Boyde.

Harris also jumped to Ellison’s defence, calling the man a “good friend” on his website after the criminal charges were laid.

Callegari, who was inducted into the UBC sports hall of fame, most recently has been a volunteer with the Langley Minor Hockey association.

Without a doubt, these men left impressions on the students they taught.

Some will reveal their memories in court this month.

Others spoke to The Sun in defence of Quest.

Surrey RCMP Cpl. Roger Morrow, who was in Quest in 1976, spoke highly of his former teachers. He denied the program was cult-like or sexually charged, and instead remembered it for encouraging students to be environmentally sensitive and community minded.

“I look back at my time in school,” Morrow said, “and Quest is, bar none, one of the top five highlights of my pre-adult life. I look back with many fond memories.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 7, 2006.
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