COVER

THE FORGOTTEN DIONNES

The siblings of the famous quints look back in anger— and defend their beleaguered parents

TOM FENNELL November 21 1994
COVER

THE FORGOTTEN DIONNES

The siblings of the famous quints look back in anger— and defend their beleaguered parents

TOM FENNELL November 21 1994

THE FORGOTTEN DIONNES

The siblings of the famous quints look back in anger— and defend their beleaguered parents

The shrine still draws the faithful. Every year, 10,000 people tour the Dionne Home Museum in North Bay, Ont., 330 km north of Toronto. There, they can stand at the foot of the bed where Elzire Dionne gave birth to five girls on May 28, 1934, the first quintuplets ever known to have survived. Many tourists who marvel at the mementoes housed in the Dionne family’s original two-storey log farmhouse probably give little thought to the quints’ five brothers and three sisters. Those siblings, now aged between 48 and 69, look back in anger. They recall the anguish of their parents as they prayed every night for the return of the five infant girls who had been taken from them to be raised in a nursery. And they still bitterly denounce the Ontario government and the media for depicting their father, Oliva, as little more than a brute, unable to care for his family. The eight—seven of whom still live in the North Bay area—are anxiously awaiting next week’s broadcast of the CBC mini-series Million Dollar Babies, which they hope will depict Oliva as a loving and thoughtful

man. Says Thérèse (Dionne) Callahan, 65, of North Bay, who was 5 when the quints were bom: “We hope the show will help the truth triumph over the lies that have tarnished our parents’ reputation.”

The Dionne quints’ siblings have much to be angry about. Following the birth of their famous sisters, four of the five older children—Rose Marie, Thérèse, Daniel and Pauline, just 11 months (the eldest, nine-year-old Ernest, stayed with his parents)—were sent to live with relatives. A year later, they returned to their home, on mgged farmland near the tiny village of Corbeil, on the outskirts of North Bay. By then, the quints had been relocated to a small hospital and nursery that had been built next door to their father’s farm, where they would remain on display for the next seven years. Finally, in 1943, the family was reunited in a three-storey brick mansion that was built next to the nursery.

While Callahan recalls brief moments of happiness when everyone gathered around the piano in the mansion, she also remembers painful rifts. The quints, raised by private nurses and teachers, simply could not bridge the gap with their sisters and brothers, who had been taught to work on the farm or in the kitchen when they were not at school. And when the quints became adults and wrote in their 1965 autobiography, We Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets Story, that their father had squandered their trust fund, the animosity among the siblings only increased. “The book angered everyone in the family,” says Callahan, a retired teacher who raised four chil-

dren with her husband, Tom, a plant superintendent. “It was as if they thought we were not human.”

In fact, few people could have withstood the forces that ripped apart the family of Oliva Dionne, who died in 1979, and his wife, Elzire, who died in

1986. As a young married couple, the two, both bom near Corbeil, took over the farm owned by Oliva Dionne’s father, occupy-

ing the house where the quints were bom—which has since been turned into a museum and moved to North Bay. At

the time, Corbeil was accessible by a narrow dirt road, and the area’s largely French-Canadian population grew up in rel-

ative isolation. Despite the Depression, Oliva held his own as a cattle breeder and periodic trapper. But on May 28, 1934, he and his wife suddenly

went from having five children (a sixth had died in infancy) to 10, and there was serious financial strain on the family.

In response to the attention the quints were attracting around the world, the Ontario government quickly erected the hospital and a nursery. During that period, Oliva and Elzire were cut off from the five infants. In fact, Callahan says that when her father and mother walked next door to the nursery, they were often sent away and told not to bother the children. “My parents were told not to even kiss the babies,” says Callahan. “But nurses could. I guess they didn’t have

germs.” The Dionnes were devastated by the separation. “They cried day after day,” recalls Callahan. “My youth ended because there was so much suffering.”

Two of the quints’ brothers, Ernest, 65, and Claude, 48, now live in their own modem bungalows next door to the mansion, known locally as “the big house,” which the family vacated in the late-1950s. The mansion, which was owned by the province, has since become Nipissing Manor, a home for senior citizens. Last week, after his wife, Jeannette, opened the couple’s front door, Ernest refused to speak or turn around as he sat at the kitchen table. Jeannette, meanwhile, hinted that her husband, who raises cattle, will have something to say if his father is treated badly in Million Dollar Babies. Next door, Claude, who works at a psychiatric hospital in North Bay, expressed anger at how his father and family have been depicted in the past. Their side of the story, he said, has never accurately been told. “Every time we talk about it, we end up looking like shit”

Many accounts of the quints’ story—including their own—have suggested that Oliva squandered the girls’ trust fund, which totalled $1 million by the time they were 5 in 1939. But Callahan maintains that once the family was reunited, her father was forced to submit receipts to government lawyers and accountants every year. She adds that, as adults, the quints spent much of the money themselves. “They wanted more and more and more,” says Callahan. ‘"Whatever my father did with the money, it was for their own good.” French-English tension also added to the maligning of Oliva and Elzire Dionne. According to stories that still circulate around North Bay, shortly after Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe delivered the infants, he told police that he had just attended the birth of “five baby frogs.” Oliva, meanwhile, was often cast as a simple francophone who had to be bailed out by Dafoe and the provincial government. Says Bruce McLeod, 78, of North Bay, who was the first journalist to interview the quints together, when they were 10 years old: “The French question was always swirling around in the background.”

While few of Oliva Dionne’s friends are still alive to testify to his character, Lyle Evans, 91, who lives near Corbeil in Callander and once worked as a police officer at the nursery, says that Oliva’s notoriety as the man who fathered quints put him in an impossible situation. At one point, recalls Evans, as many as 3,000 people a day were moving through the nursery, and if they spotted Dionne on the property they would mob him. Childless women would try to touch him, as if his virility could somehow rub off on them. “He couldn’t walk across the road,” recalls Evans, “or they would proposition him.”

The birth of the quints not only disrupted the immediate family, but it also profoundly changed the lives of their neighbors.

Marguerite Audy, 81, the daughter of Douilda Legros, one of the midwives who helped deliver the babies, says that

when the quints arrived, she and her fellow villagers suddenly had new opportunities.

Crews quickly paved the local roads and strung up power lines. The subsequent arrival of daily crowds allowed Audy, who had only a Grade 4 education and

was working on a farm, to open a souvenir shop and publish a booklet on the quints. ‘We all had a new life because of the quints,”

recalls Audy. Still, she too is saddened by the divisions in the family. ‘The girls grew up in captivity,” added Audy. “If only the government

had not shown up. The whole family would be happy today.”

In the end, says Callahan, her family could not have been saved because they had simply been apart, in

very different circumstances, for too long. For much of their childhood, the quints were raised like princesses, while the eight other Dionne children were cooking, cleaning, sewing and helping with the farm work. “We were raised to live a normal life,” says Callahan. “For them, there were five nurses and five children. We just didn’t have the same background.” And that is a key to the Dionne tragedy.

TOM FENNELL in Corbeil