We Were Five


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.



  1. 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


    • 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. 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.


    • 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.


  3. 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?


  4. 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.


  5. 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!


    • 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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