CANADA

Quest for truth

The quints demand an Ontario forensic audit

BRENDA BRANSWELL March 23 1998
CANADA

Quest for truth

The quints demand an Ontario forensic audit

BRENDA BRANSWELL March 23 1998

Quest for truth

CANADA

The quints demand an Ontario forensic audit

BRENDA BRANSWELL

Bundled up in sweaters inside their drafty bungalow, Annette, Cécile and Yvonne Dionne smiled and laughed as they posed for a picture. Their ease in front of the camera spoke volumes about the remarkable week they had just experienced. After years of living in poverty while demanding compensation for their childhood exploitation at the hands of the Ontario government, the surviving Dionne quintuplets faced the pleasant prospect of becoming millionaires—and an even sweeter feeling of vindication. On March 6, Ontario Conservative Premier Mike Harris offered $4 million to the Dionnes, who were taken away from their parents as infants and put on public display in a theme park known as Quintland, near North Bay. Last week, sitting on a small couch in their modest home in the Montreal suburb of St-Bruno, the shy 63-year-old sisters were upbeat but cautious in a relaxed conversation in French with Maclean’s. “I’m relieved,” said Annette simply. Asked if she was happy with the settlement, Cécile replied: “Happy is a big word. I am content.”

The reason for her restraint is that the saga is not over yet. Harris also promised an inquiry into the province’s “treatment” of the Dionne quintuplets during their childhood, but not what the premier called “the monetary part.” But for the Dionnes any in| quiry must include a forensic audit into the | fate of their trust fund money—something £ their lawyer, Clayton Ruby, says may entitle g them to millions more. Set up in 1935 while | the quints were wards of Ontario, the trust | fund totalled only $800,000 when they | turned 21. But by one estimate their loss 5 from the fund was as much as $22 million. The Dionnes want the inquiry to start as soon as possible. “I want it done to see what happened,” says Cécile, the most vocal of the soft-spoken sisters.

It was Cécile and her son, Bertrand, 36, who first began to investigate the hundreds of relevant documents in the Ontario archives in 1994. They did not like what they saw—one 1940 financial account from the Dionnes’ guardianship shows that more than $17,000 was spent in legal and administrative fees during a 15-month period. Although Ontario Judge J. A. S. Plouffe approved the guardians’ financial statements at the time, he noted: “Surely the estate of the Dionne quintuplets is not of such magnitude and its affairs are not so complicated to warrant the above-mentioned expendi-

ture.” Now, Bertrand Dionne says, “I’m satisfied in the sense that my suspicions were well founded. But I’ll be even more satisfied once the review is done.” As for whether justice has been served by the $4-million settlement, Cécile says it’s difficult to say because she does not know what the files will ultimately reveal. But a cheque with six zeros, Cécile adds, “still feels good when we have nothing in our pockets.”

The sisters plan to hire an accountant and

spoil themselves by buying some clothes. Until now, they have been living on a combined pension of $746 a month. Their living room ceiling sports a long strip of white paint concealing stains from a leaky roof. “I’m going to pay off my debts,” says Cécile. Annette, who rarely travels and has flown only once, hopes to take a few small trips. Her last one was to Toronto, Annette says, as her sisters burst out laughing, recalling the grim Feb. 26 trip that the sisters made for the news conference where they flatly turned down the Ontario government’s $6,000-a-month offer. “I think I’ll go a little bit farther than Toronto,” chimes in Yvonne, laughing. Switching to a serious tone, she adds: “I haven’t given much thought to the future. There are so many emotions at the

same time. It’s difficult to absorb all this.”

There is still lingering displeasure with the Harris government’s handling of their claim. “First of all, they took an enormous amount of time,” says Cécile. “And they showed a lot of indifference. That was quite frustrating.” After facing a barrage of criticism for his initial response, Harris met with the Dionnes in Bertrand’s home on March 6 to personally apologize on behalf of past—and present— Ontario governments. Both the premier, who presented the sisters with a coffee cake, and the Dionnes described the visit as emotional. It was also brief. “Eleven minutes,” says Cécile matter-of-factly.

If a generous response from Queen’s Park wasn’t initially forthcoming, that was not the case among other Canadians who sent cheques and wrote letters of support, including one Ontario roofer who offered to fix the Dionnes’ leak for free. Given their settlement, the donations that can be traced

back will be returned, says Carlo Tarini, the Montreal public relations executive who drummed up media attention on the Dionnes’ behalf, and money that cannot be traced will go to charity. The Dionne sisters, meanwhile, have not celebrated their victory. Instead, they continue to press their case for an audit and plan to wait for the longsought answers. “I hope that what we have experienced will give courage to women caught up with problems, that they don’t despair and that they continue fighting,” says Cécile. For the sisters, waging a fight for justice meant heading out into the very arena that proved so painful for them in the past— the spotlight.