We Were Five

14 Jul


Mitchell Hepburn with Dionne Quintuplets

Mitchell Hepburn (11th Premier of Ontario, Canada) with Dionne Quintuplets. This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-019533 and under the MIKAN ID number 3191913

Elzire Dionne suspected she was carrying twins, but no one was aware that quintuplets were even possible.   In her third month,  she reported having had cramps and passing a strange object which, in hindsight, may have been the sixth fetus. The Dionne Quintuplets were born on May 28, 1934.   The five girls, in order of birth: Yvonne Édouilda Marie, Annette Lillianne Marie, Cécile Marie Émilda, Émilie Marie Jeanne, and Marie Reine Alma.

They are the first quintuplets known to survive their infancy. The sisters were born in Canada south of North Bay, Ontario, just outside Callander, Ontario, near the village of Corbeil. Émilie and Marie shared an embryonic sac, Annette and Yvonne shared another one, and it is believed that Cécile shared an embryonic sac with the miscarried sixth fetus. Each girl became emotionally close to whomever she shared a sac with, and Cécile tended to be alone the most.   The girls were born two months premature.

After four months with their family, they were made Wards of the King for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935. The government and those around them began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction in Ontario. Four months later, the Ontario government,  Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council, on the advice of Premier Mitchell Hepburn, intervened and found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets (although not for their earlier children), in 1935.  The government realized that there was massive public interest in the sisters and proceeded to engender a tourist industry around them. Across the road from their birthplace, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers.   It was surrounded by a covered arcade that allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens.

Dionne Sisters in June 1947

The Dionne quintuplets, accompanied by Mrs Olive Dionne and Frère Gustave Sauvé, take part in a program of religious music at Lansdowne Park, during the five days Marian Congress which prayed for peace and celebrated the centenary of the Ottawa archdiocese (June 1947). This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number PA-155518 and under the MIKAN ID number 3192103

It is estimated that 6,000 people visited the observation gallery every day. 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943.   In 1934, the Quintuplets brought in about $1 million, and they attracted in total about $51 million of tourist revenue to Ontario.

Quintland, as it came to be called, became Ontario’s biggest tourist attraction of the era; then surpassing the Canadian side of Niagara Falls!

In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house, with many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water.

According to the accounts of the surviving sisters, the parents often treated them at home as a five-part unit and often lectured them about the trouble they had caused the family by existing.  They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, the expensive food and the series of cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned.

The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952 and had little contact with their parents afterwards.  Annette and Cécile both eventually divorced; by the 1990s, the three surviving sisters (Annette, Cécile and Yvonne) lived together in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville.

In 1998, the sisters reached a monetary settlement with the Ontario government as compensation for their exploitation. Yvonne Dionne died in 2001, and as of May 2013, there are two surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile.

The sisters wrote a book, We Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets’ Story from Birth through Girlhood to Womanhood that’s worth a read. A blog at Gosselins Without Pity posted a letter the sisters wrote to a couple who just had septuplets, I also find the comments on this page quite interesting.



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26 responses to “We Were Five

  1. The Canadian Cats

    August 1, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Hi friend,
    I of course knew about the quints but not the detail you included. These poor girls had a terrible life! They were just objects to be used by the government and their parents. Thanks for the glimpse into our history.

    Shoko’s mom….Jean

    • tkmorin

      August 1, 2014 at 7:32 pm

      You’re welcome, Jean! Yes, I do feel for their experience. I’d like to think that we’ve learned something from that.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  2. huntmode

    July 27, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    TK – what a marvelously interesting post! Thank you for this – it fills in a lot of holes for me. It is a famous family story that my grandmother wrote a poem about the Dionne Quintuplets as they were born on her birthday. It was titled, “Where are the rest of me?” Grin.

    • tkmorin

      July 28, 2014 at 9:22 am

      What a wonderful title! I love it. And I’m glad it filled in some gaps for you! 🙂

  3. urkaicommunity

    July 17, 2014 at 9:56 am

    This story kinda reminds me of modern day reality t.v. I keep thinking about that weird Gossling couple and all their kids. Pure exploitation for money.

    • tkmorin

      July 17, 2014 at 11:12 am

      I can understand that the costs go up a lot for suddenly having so many more mouths to fill, but there is a limit of how to go about getting money for that.

  4. avwalters

    July 16, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    One wonders at the greed of it, by both government and parents. and also whether that 11 year custodial gap prevented any real familial bonding. Would these quints have been taken from the family if they were of English heritage?

    • tkmorin

      July 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      So many questions, most a product of their time, and so many to go unanswered.

  5. Mark Armstrong

    July 15, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Your most astonishing post ever!! I’m giving it “Quints”: namely, 5 stars outta 5!! : )

    • tkmorin

      July 16, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Thank you very much, Mark! 🙂

  6. L. Marie

    July 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Such beautiful names! Such a great story!

  7. seeker

    July 15, 2014 at 1:29 am

    The government always put their noses where it shouldn’t be for a fee. I felt so sorry for this family. Thank you for a great story, Tk. I enjoyed reading this.

    • tkmorin

      July 15, 2014 at 9:27 am

      You are welcome, P!

  8. Gypsy Bev

    July 14, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    People get so greedy that they forget what is really important in life. Those poor children probably grew into adults that were never really comfortable in their own skin. So sad!

    • tkmorin

      July 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

      I think writing the book We Were Five might have helped them heal, in telling the stories in their own words. I hope so, anyway.

  9. earthriderjudyberman

    July 14, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    A tragic story. Separated from their family. Exploited by the government and then their family. Truly sad. Thank you for sharing.

    • tkmorin

      July 14, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      Thank you! 🙂

  10. Joanne

    July 14, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    What an appalling thing to do to such innocents – both on the government’s behalf and the parents behalf – how sad for the sisters.

  11. hairballexpress

    July 14, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    HISS! I hate hearing about humans being used as a tourist attraction- and how dare their parents make them feel so awful “for existing!” GRRRRRR…

  12. Maurice A. Barry

    July 14, 2014 at 9:59 am

    At its heart it’s a sad story. Perhaps, though, some good can come for it in the form of lessons that can be learned in advance of exploitation.

    • tkmorin

      July 14, 2014 at 12:38 pm

      Yes, I certainly hope for that!

  13. AfterTheKidsLeave

    July 14, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I’ve always felt so sorry for those poor ladies. What a way to live–the government really had a lot to answer for.

    • tkmorin

      July 14, 2014 at 9:35 am

      Even the millions they received from the government does not take away what they endured.

      • AfterTheKidsLeave

        July 14, 2014 at 11:52 am

        Exactly–and it took its toll on all of them. Such a sad story.

  14. First Night Design

    July 14, 2014 at 8:08 am

    The greed of others makes me sick. Nothing changes. Have a lovely week, tk!

    • tkmorin

      July 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Greed is bad, I so totally agree. And I especially feel angry when other people suffer for it (like pyramid frauds) and doubly so if kids suffer.


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