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#Canada150: How Ontario exploited five little northern girls and put North Bay on the map

The Dionne Quintuplets were as famous as famous could be. What they weren’t was happy

At the height of the Great Depression, something incredible happened that gave Canadians hope for the future. Against all odds, identical quintuplet girls were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne in the hamlet of Corbeil, near North Bay, on May 28, 1934. 

Amidst the economic turmoil and despair, the birth of these five tiny miracles highlighted the beauty of life and reignited the optimism of many. It made headlines around the world and people followed the news of their early development with bated breath. 

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe wrote that, “there should be no question about these babies being well cared for. Canada is proud of them; and the world is looking on to see if they be brought up in comfort, as they should be.”

The outcome of the five girls, Cécile, Yvonne, Marie, Émilie, and Annette, wasn’t simply a diversion for folks mired in the Depression; it held greater significance. No known set of quintuplets born previously had ever survived infancy. If the girls were able to defy the odds, it would truly be an incredible moment in human history. 

From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against them. The Dionne Quintuplets were born to a family that already consisted of five children who ranged in age from eleven months to seven years old. Their father, Oliva, was a farmer who struggled to make ends meet. With the arrival of five new daughters, the Dionne household immediately doubled in size. With just four rooms and no utilities, the family home was not ideal for rearing the newest members of the brood. 

Fortunately, the family had help from nurses and the physician, Dr. Allan Dafoe, who brought the girls into the world. The medical team diligently watched over their charges and did everything in their power to care for the undersized quintuplets. 

Early on, they were fed from an eyedropper that contained a mixture of milk, corn syrup, and water, but thanks to provisions from hospitals in Toronto and Montreal, and even young mothers in the district, Dafoe was able to augment the girls’ diet with human milk. It worked and the Quints, who only had a combined weight of 13 pounds, slowly began to get stronger. 

The outpouring of support streamed in from across North America. A Chicago newspaper donated a hot water incubator, a welcome addition since the girls were initially sleeping in a basket. The Canada Club of New York sent the family an undisclosed cheque and a note that read, “may your daughters grow to womanhood and be a credit to the flag under which you were born.” 

Other offers, however, also filtered in and it was not long before controversy clouded their incredible story. Chicago promoters approached the family about putting the quintuplets on display in the Century of Progressive Exposition at the city’s famed World’s Fair. 

Oliva, perhaps sensing that he would not be able to properly provide for his daughters, viewed the proposal as an opportunity. They initially agreed to have the quintuplets showcased in exchange for a weekly fee and a third of the gate receipts. Although the deal never came to pass, many were critical of the family for their willingness to seemingly exploit their daughters. 

As a result, around that time, the provincial government intervened. The Dionne girls were made wards of the crown and decisions about their upbringing was tasked to a board of guardians that did not even include their parents. 

By the time the quintuplets were five months old, they were living in a government-built facility in Callander under the auspices of Dr. William Blatz from the University of Toronto. Known as Dafoe Hospital, this facility was meant to serve as both a nursery and hospital for the girls, but it quickly became apparent that it was also an enormous tourist attraction. 

The Ontario government capitalized on the opportunity and marketed “Quintland” to prospective tourists across the continent. And they came in droves. Between 1936 to 1943, over three million people visited the quintuplets, including celebrities such as Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis. 

There, guests would watch the Dionne’s carry out their carefully calculated daily routines from behind one-way glass. Historians have suggested that, “showing of the Dionne Quintuplets pumped millions of dollars into the northern Ontario economy,” with some noting that as much as $15 million was netted by the public purse. 

The girls were also the subject and stars of three fictional Hollywood movies, but their lives were anything but glamorous. They were put on exhibition as though they were captive animals; a source of amusement for vacationers. 

Unfortunately, even after “Quintland” ceased operations in 1943, when the girls were returned to their family following a long custody battle with the government, things did not improve for the quintuplets. Although they moved into a 19-room mansion, the exploitation continued. 

The sisters later claimed that they were sexually assaulted by their father and beaten by their mother. Once they turned legal age, they left home and moved to Montreal. 

Away from their family, the sisters looked to pursue a more private life. Annette, Cécile and Marie all married and had children of their own. Meanwhile, Émilie followed her faith and joined a convent. Tragically, she died at the age of 20 as a result of a seizure she suffered as part of her ongoing struggles with epilepsy. Marie later died in 1970, the result of an apparent blood clot and Yvonne passed away in 2001 after she lost her battle with cancer. 

Today, the surviving sisters, Cécile and Annette, continue to live in Montreal but under very different circumstances. Although they were each reportedly awarded $1-million in 1998 from the Ontario government as compensation for their exploitation as children, Cécile is now penniless. While Annette lives independently and sees her sister regularly, she is unable to care for Cécile at this time in their lives. 

The Dionnes certainly left their mark on Canadian history. Although the girls put Callander, Ontario, on the map, it was not without significant hardship. What had all the makings of a fairy tale turned out to have anything but a storybook ending. 

Their uniqueness, however, is without parallel. Another set of quintuplets were not born in Canada for over fifty years. When three girls and two boys were born to an Ottawa couple on September 23, 1987, news of their delivery could not have been more different. It made international headlines, but when hospital officials spoke to the media, it was under the condition of strict anonymity. The parents had requested that neither they, nor their children names be disclosed to the public. 

Although it had been more than a half century since the announcement of the Dionne quintuplets’ births graced broadsheets around the globe, it was clear that the lessons and mistakes in their early development were not to be repeated. 

In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial this year,, with the help of our resident historian Dr. Mike Commito, is going back to the archives each month throughout 2017 to highlight some important memories and events in our nation’s history. We hope to provide you with some interesting stories about our past as we collectively celebrate, and analyze, what #Canada150 means.