Monday, April 3, 2017

The Dionnes, a Family Exploited

by Pa Rock
Student of History

There was an article on the Internet this morning regarding the once famous Dionne quintuplets of Canada.  The five identical little girls were born to very surprised parents in a remote corner of Ontario on May 28th, 1934, the first known set of quintuplets to all survive birth.

The baby girls were named Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie.   They had five older siblings at the time of their birth.

As a youngster I remember stories about the Dionne quints and references to them both in conversation as well as through the popular culture.  They were still an oddity as they reached adulthood in the 1950's.  Then, of course, with the development and use of fertility drugs, multiple births started becoming more commonplace, a medical trend that ultimately led to the reality star-wannabe "Octomom" who had eight fertilized eggs implanted in her womb and gave birth to octuplets in January of 2009.  What had once been an accident of nature had evolved into a calculated publicity stunt.

The current news regarding the Dionne sisters is that the city of Northbay, Ontario, is attempting to sell their family home (which has been relocated twice since the girls lived in it) to a developer who will remove it to a fairground.  The two surviving sisters, Annette and Cecile, are opposing that sale.  The article contained a sweet photo of the two frail-looking older women standing together and holding hands.

The news article also referenced the exploitation that the girls endured both at the hands of their parents and of the government.  A Chicago exhibition company was in talks with the parents when the girls were just a few months old.  The company was apparently going to use them in a traveling exhibit, something on the order of a P.T. Barnum show.  The Canadian government interceded when the babies were just four months old and took them into protective custody to prevent the parents from profiting off of them.

The government built a special nursery and hospital for the little girls across the road from the family farm, with monetary assistance from the Red Cross.   That facility soon became a tourist attraction itself, and as people started arriving to get a glimpse of the quints, the facility was expanded to allow for easy viewing.  The complex soon included an outdoor playground with a viewing stand for the tourists.  At one point more than six thousand people a day were arriving to watch the quintuplets enjoy their  "normal" life - and several millions saw them over the nine years that they lived in the hospital / nursery.  At one time, "Quintland" as it came to be called, was the largest tourist attraction in all of Canada, and one of the most visited places in North America.

Even with the "protection from exploitation" by the government, the family still profited.  The father ran a souvenir shop across the road at the family home where, among other things, he sold rocks from the family farm that he advertised as magical "fertility" stones.

The parents won back custody of their daughters when they were nine-years-old.  They controlled the girls' lives and activities until the quints reached the age of eighteen at which time they left home.  They had little contact with their parents after they moved out.  Two of the sisters died young, Emilie (who was becoming a nun) passed away from a seizure at the age of twenty, and Marie died in 1970.

In 1997 the three surviving Dionne sisters wrote a letter to Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, the parents of a set of septuplets born in Des Moines, Iowa.  It read:

Dear Bobbi and Kenny,
If we emerge momentarily from the privacy we have sought all our adult lives, it is only to send a message to the McCaughey family. We three would like you to know we feel a natural affinity and tenderness for your children. We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.
Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government of Ontario, our place of birth. We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. To this day we receive letters from all over the world. To all those who have expressed their support in light of the abuse we have endured, we say thank you. And to those who would seek to exploit the growing fame of these children, we say beware.
We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose.
Sincerely, Annette, Cécile and Yvonne Dionne
The surviving three won a settlement of $2.8 million from the Canadian government in 1998 for the time that they were exploited as a tourist attraction.  Cecile's son stole her share of the settlement and disappeared, never to be seen again.   Yvonne passed away in 2001, and the two surviving sisters, Annette and Cecile, live in relative obscurity.

Except that they are now stepping forward in an attempt to save the family home, a little shell of a building that probably symbolizes the closest thing to normalcy that they ever experienced while growing up.   The two remaining Dionne quintuplets are struggling once more to stave off the exploitation that has been a sad constant through much of their lives - and to claim a small chard of their lives for themselves.  

Stay strong, ladies.

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