Cult-like bonding sparked rumours

The teachers and the Questers: Trial opens amid allegations of sexual assault against elite group of girls at Vancouver school

Globe and Mail, Canada/October 11, 2006
By Rod Mickleburgh

Vancouer -- It began as a pioneering program for hand-picked high-school students on the city's affluent west side, allowing them to step outside their classroom routine and challenge themselves in the outdoors.

By the time its 14-year run ended in 1987, however, the once-lauded Quest program was awash in a sea of rumours over sexual relations between numerous female teenage students and their good-looking male teachers, looked on as "gods" by many of the young women.

Rumours were fed by cult-like bonding among the teachers and their charges, known as "Questers," who were encouraged to stay within the group and feel superior to other students at Prince of Wales Secondary School.

Yesterday, years after a lengthy police investigation began into the program, former Quest leader Tom Ellison appeared in an overflow provincial courtroom, charged with 12 counts of gross indecency, three counts of indecent assault and one count of sexual assault.

Two other former teachers are being investigated by the B.C. College of Teachers for alleged sexual misconduct during their time with Quest.

Since news of the alleged sex scandal broke publicly last month, the number of complainants and charges against Mr. Ellison, 63, has doubled. A dozen former female students in the program have come forward to testify against him.

In court, Mr. Ellison was raked by prosecutor Ralph Keefer as someone who "drastically abused his trust and authority as a teacher. . . . His pattern of conduct was to manipulate and exploit these girls for his own sexual gratification."

Speaking at the outset of what is expected to be a riveting, three-week trial, Mr. Keefer said the charges include incidents of breast massages, oral sex, digital penetration and sexual intercourse, involving students 15 to 18 years of age.

As the prosecutor outlined details of the alleged sexual encounters, the tall, trim defendant, his strong features weathered by the outdoors, stared ahead impassively.

Since leaving teaching in 1988, Mr. Ellison, whose long-time partner is an ex-Quester, has run adventure tours along the northern B.C. coast on his million-dollar yacht.

According to the Crown, most of the alleged offences took place on the live-aboard sailboat Mr. Ellison had moored in the city during the school year, or on 10-day sailing trips during the summer.

The prosecutor cited a dramatic encounter that began as Mr. Ellison danced slowly with one of his students to Stairway to Heaven at one of the regular Quest dances.

"He flattered her and commented on her body," Mr. Keefer said.

Later, during a summer sailing trip, the 16-year-old ended up sleeping in the bow beside Mr. Ellison. During the night, he fondled her breasts, kissed her on the mouth, massaged her clitoris, and put her hand on his erect penis, the prosecutor told the court.

"This was her first sexual experience and it upset her greatly. She dropped out of the program and did not date until she was 22."

In another case, a student would ride her bicycle to various locations to have sexual relations with Mr. Ellison, Mr. Keefer said. "She felt lucky. She felt chosen."

It was part of Mr. Ellison's pattern, the prosecutor said, leading female students to think they were special, while warning them not to tell anyone of the contact between them.

Identities of the former students, now in their early 40s, are protected by a court-ordered publication ban.

The charges do not allege that Mr. Ellison, who has pleaded not guilty, used force in any of the incidents.

Defence lawyer Bill Smart said "there is no dispute that Mr. Ellison's conduct was unprofessional and wrong."

But he argued that his client's actions did not violate the existing criminal code at the time they occurred. "The section [on gross indecency] is so vague and overbroad that it is unconstitutional."

The first witness to testify yesterday told of slow dances with Mr. Ellison, breast massages on his yacht and photos taken while she sunbathed in the nude during a sailing trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands. She was 16 at the time, she testified.

"I had never had a boyfriend before. The feeling of sexual attraction was very strong," the woman told the court. "I just remember the headiness involved."

The case has caused a sensation among the hundreds of former Quest participants, each selected individually by the male teachers for the semester-long program, which featured overnight camping, hiking, snowshoeing and lengthy canoe trips.

Many were from elite Vancouver families.

Some of those interviewed before the opening of Mr. Ellison's trial continued to call Quest the best experience of their lives.

Others, particularly women, said Quest fostered a loose moral atmosphere, rife with sexual innuendo and students pressured into skinny dipping, leaving girls in their awkward teenage years feeling vulnerable and preyed upon.

"Quest was kind of like a cult. These guys [the teachers] were gods," Janet Rygnestad, a 1982 Quester, told a reporter.

"They were young guys. They were good-looking, all of them. They were so powerful. We all looked up to them."

Ms. Rygnestad said that everyone at the school knew what was going on, but that, 25 years ago, the times were such that no one did anything.

"It was the worst-kept, dirty little secret on Vancouver's west side."

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