Newsmakers 2015: Elton McDonald and the mystery tunnel

The discovery of his tunnel turned Elton McDonald into a folk hero who captivated the world

(Photograph by Della Rollins)

(Photograph by Della Rollins)

For a guy so intent on going underground that he spent hundreds of hours burrowing into the earth to build a secret tunnel, 2015 came as a shock. Elton McDonald spied the beginning of his celebrity in the photographs that Toronto police shared with media in February. Investigators were stumped as to who, exactly, lay behind the mysterious underground structure, built by hand in a ravine beside York University.

“Anora,” McDonald told his sister. “That thing that I was doing is on the news.”

First discovered in January, the elaborate structure, 10 m long, more than two metres high, expertly braced, with electric lights and a rosary hanging on the wall, was feared by some to be part of a terrorist plot to disrupt the 2015 Pan Am Games, part of which were to take place at York. On Twitter, it became the #terrortunnel.

Related: The incredible true story behind the Toronto mystery tunnel

No one, in the end, came close to guessing the real truth: that the tunnel was the product of a young guy’s persistent dream to build a place apart and to step away from the world. “I was getting away from regular things, away from life,” said McDonald, a 22-year-old construction worker.

The tunnel took two years to dig. It took authorities, who drove a backhoe into the woods a 10-minute walk from McDonald’s home, minutes to fill in.

It was McDonald’s boss and mentor, Boko “Bob” Marich, whose firm does construction around the Toronto area, who quietly alerted police to his identity. First he made sure McDonald would face no criminal charges. Then-Toronto police chief Bill Blair called the tunnel “the coolest fort ever,” but didn’t say who built it.

It was up to McDonald, scion of the Driftwood Court public housing development, one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Canada, to reveal himself to the world. When he did, he found himself under siege. Reporters descended on the family’s townhouse, pleading for interviews.

McDonald, who grew up hearing gunshots, became a Toronto folk hero, known internationally for the way he translated a boyhood dream into reality. Someone wrote a rap song about him. He was on magazine covers and newspaper front pages. Even his dad, who lives in rural Jamaica, heard of his exploits.

McDonald turned the attention to his advantage. He launched an online crowdfunding campaign, promising to establish a club for boys. Setting his target at $10,000, he surpassed it, amassing donations totalling almost double that. The money funded the summer camp and allowed him to take the boys on field trips to the Toronto Zoo and Canada’s Wonderland. He is a big, quiet man with a deep, booming chuckle, but with the boys, he was like a kid himself again, in the heat of summer zipping down water slides.

The unexpected windfall obscured for a time the ongoing realities of the neighbourhood where he still lives. But not for long. In July, a friend died in a shootout with police. Kwasi Skene-Peters, 21, was himself wanted in the shooting deaths of two men. His violent end after a troubled life plunged McDonald into mourning.

It was just that kind of life McDonald himself has, for the most part, managed to escape. The hours of underground toil may even have kept him safe, and could well lead to his future. Weeks after his media splash, McDonald received an invitation from the vice-president of a major Toronto engineering firm to talk “tunneller to tunneller,” as he put it. “I love tunnels and you love tunnels,” the man told McDonald when they met. “I had to talk to you.”

Who knows where his tunnel will lead next?

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