Since his election in 1995, Ontario Premier Mike Harris has ridden out a storm of criticism raised by his Conservative government’s relentless costcutting. Harris has never had to admit a mistake or back down—never, that is, until he ran up against the three surviving Dionne quintuplets. Yvonne, Annette and Cécile have been seeking compensation for being taken as infants from their parents by the Ontario government, and for the millions of dollars in tourism revenues they generated when the government put them on display in Quintland, a bizarre theme park near Harris’s home town of North Bay. Their emotional appeal at a news conference in Toronto on Feb. 26 struck a sympathetic chord with Ontario residents. And when the premier insisted that the province’s offer to pay each of them $2,000 a month was final, the public outrage was so great that last week Harris was forced to make a stunning about-face: a new deal of $4 million, plus an inquiry into Quintland and a personal apology from the premier. “Speak out against injustice,” said the Dionnes in a letter accepting the deal, “and fight for what is right.”
After Harris’s initial offer, the Tory government quickly recognized it had blundered into a massive public relations disaster. Even normally sympathetic editorialists denounced what they called the premier’s heavy-handed behavior, while thousands of ordinary citizens phoned and wrote letters to their MPPs demanding more money for the sisters. Harris asked Harvey Strosberg, the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, to renew ne-
gotiations with Clayton Ruby, the prominent Toronto criminal lawyer who negotiated on behalf of the Dionnes. Strosberg, one of Canada’s top litigation lawyers, has been involved in some of the country’s biggest cases—representing hockey great Bobby Orr in his suit against Alan Eagleson, and the federal government in former prime minister Brian Mulrone/s libel suit against Ottawa over the Air-
Ontario pays out $4 million to the Dionnes
bus affair. Strosberg and Ruby met daily last week, at the law society and in restaurants, before finally nailing down a deal at 11:30 p.m. Thursday at Ruby’s home in Toronto’s prestigious Rosedale district. “I was told to go and do what was fair,” said Strosberg. “The government opened with $1 million, but it came down to a case of hitting the right number. The $4 million represented fairly what the Dionnes had lost.”
Because both sides wanted a deal struck quickly, they decided to forgo an examination of government documents detailing exactly the financial relationship that existed between the province and the quints. Instead, Ruby told Maclean’s, he and Strosberg relied on an informal audit of official documents dug up by CTV’s W5 current events program, which estimated the loss from a trust fund established for the Dionnes at close to $22 million. According to some estimates, the quints generated nearly $500 million in tourist revenues for the province—drawing more than 10,000 visitors a month to Quintland during the Depression. But by the time they were 7 in 1941, there was only $1 million in the trust, and 14 years later, when they were 21 and finally eligible to receive the money, the sum had fallen to $800,000. In the end, both lawyers said last week’s agreement was based more on moral suasion than cold hard facts. “I wanted this to end because these women have had enough stress in their lives,” said Ruby. “So we estimated what they are owed.” The Dionnes got even more from the chastened Harris government than they had expected. Strosberg said that the family was willing to accept a deal that did not include another of their demands: a formal investigation into Quintland. But the government freely offered an inquiry into how the Dionne children were taken from their parents and raised as tourist attractions. Both Strosberg and Ruby, though, cautioned that the full mandate of the inquiry has yet to be determined.
In spite of his initial gaffe, Harris is the first Ontario premier ever to address the question of how to compensate the Dionnes. That may be because he grew up in North Bay and is intimately acquainted with their saga: how the five girls were born in 1934 in a tiny farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, how they were then seized by the provincial government, how troubled their later lives have been. And the three surviving sisters, who
now live together in the Montreal suburb of St-Bruno on a combined income of $746 a month, had made it clear at their Toronto news conference that they simply were not going to give up. In the end, Harris travelled to Montreal for a private meeting with the three women. “It was emotional,” said the premier. “I apologized on behalf of the government of Ontario. I apologized for our handling of the situation.” The Dionnes were clearly aided in their fight for justice by the fact that the government is trying to soften its hard-
nosed image and reverse its waning popularity before the next election. At a party retreat two weeks ago in the Georgian Bay resort town of Collingwood, Tory strategists were attempting just that—an effort not helped by the sight of the premier seeming to bully three frail women. “We make mistakes, and the process that led to this announcement is one of them,” said Attorney General Charles Harnick as he announced the deal. Now, the Tories will have to wait to see if voters will accept their efforts to make amends.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.