The 1930s were very dark and depressing years for most Canadians. The Great Depression had global ramifications and Canada did not avoid the economic strain that was impacting the rest of the world: “millions of Canadians were out of work, and hundred of thousands more struggled to survive on drastically reduced incomes”.1 With the births of Annette, Cécile, Emilie, Marie and Yvonne Dionne in 1934, the province of Ontario, coupled with Canada, discovered a “Human Goldmine”.2 From the moment the Quints were born, they were subjected to awful living standards and were abused by the Provincial government for financial gains. But, why were the Dionne Quintuplets and their parents, Elzire and Oliva, manipulated into such a horrible fate? During an era that was struggling economically, the Ontario government took advantage of a very rare event to make short-term financial gains. The small Franco-Ontario hamlet of Corbeil, birthplace of the Quintuplets, became a booming tourist attraction that generated massive crowds and huge sums of money. By analyzing the Ontario government’s political policies during the Great Depression it is evident that the Dionne Quintuplets were unjustly treated as provincial property rather than ordinary children. Specifically, the Ontario Liberal government abused its political power and influence to legally, economically and culturally take advantage of a single family all to bolster its popularity and security in a depressing and dark era.
During the Great Depression large families were not considered popular and having a large family was perceived as “sinful” and “selfish”. The “Dirty Thirties” global economic status left Canada struggling; on a personal scale having multiple children only made life more challenging to survive the economic hardship that was being felt nation-wide. Pierre Berton, a noted author of Canadian history, attests that even having sex in the 1930s was just “plain dirty; childbearing, at the very least was vulgar and, at the worst obscene”.3 Nonetheless, on May 28th, 1934 Ontario experienced the impossible- the birth of the five identical children. The odds of quintuplets are 1 in 57 289 761 and require a single egg to be twinned three times. It truly was remarkable that Elzire Dionne was able to give birth in a world in which medical support was very limited. The 1930s infant mortality rates were much higher than today’s which not only made the births of the five babies a miracle, but also indicated the reality that the Quint’s survival beyond a year would be a phenomenon4 - especially when the total weight of the five babies was just 13 pounds and 5 ounces.5
The Ontario government participated in a very scandalous plot to gain control of the very unique quintuplets.6 News quickly spread throughout the province of Ontario that a miraculous event had taken place and many opportunists began looking to benefit from the Quints. Considering the Dionnes already had five children and the reality that the Quint’s survival rate was fragile, Oliva signed a contract with the Chicago World Fair, allowing the Americans to display the five babies twice a day for $100. Because Elzire and Oliva Dionne struggled financially largely because of their 10 children, the general public viewed them as “unfit” parents. Oliva’s financial decision was viewed as selfish. The public reacted: were the five girls a circus act? A freak show to be paraded to the rest of the world? “[A]lthough [Oliva] may have signed it out of fear of being otherwise unable to support his huge family, the Ontario government stepped in and declared the ‘Dionnes’ unfit parents”.7 Oliva was branded with such incriminating names as “money grabber” or “profiteer” and just plain “stupid”. Professor David Welch, Francophone minority specialist, argued that the Ontario population was livid at Oliva Dionne, which gave the provincial government the perfect opportunity to step in: “[The contract] outraged the Ontario population and gave the Ontario government an excuse to place the Quints under provincial guardianship”8. Furthermore, Mitchell Hepburn, Premiere of Ontario in the Quints era, declared, “when exploiters from American cities [Chicago World Fair] come to Canada to pull this kind of racket they need not think that the attorney general’s department is going to stand idly by. The lives of children are a bigger concern in Canada than profits of an exploitation or promotional undertaking”.9 Ironically and unfortunately, within a year the Ontario Liberal government transformed the Quints into one of the most lucrative promotional marketing schemes in the province’s history. Initially proposing to act on behalf of the children’s best interest, the Liberals soon revealed their true intentions. Ontario’s leaders were just as money hungry as their American counterparts. Time quickly displayed how provincial politicians had every intention to manipulate the Dionne parents into gaining custody of the Quints and using these innocent children as pawns in a game to profit the Ontario government’s treasury.
Furthermore, the government used its political clout to promote its popularity by assuming guardianship of the Dionne children. Michigan journalist Sue White’s research into the personal lives of the Dionne family indicates that the Dionne parents were people that were victims to financial circumstance and naïve to the sophisticated offerings of those around them that could benefit from the Quints. White’s research led her to Floyd Andrick, a Michigan resident, who in his late teenage years lived with the Dionne family and was considered a family friend. Andrick admitted that the government used emotional manipulation and financial influence to gain custody of the Dionne quintuplets. Andrick’s testimony indicates that the “Government officials forced the Dionnes into signing the girls to their care when the Quints were only 2 months old by threatening to take away the nurses and the mother’s milk and the medical supplies they needed to survive”.10 Under the Dionne Quints Guardianship Act of 1935 the five identical girls became special wards of the province.
The province built a brand new hospital right across from the Dionne farm and called it the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery (aka Quintland). The Ontario government placed Dr. Dafoe as their primary caregiver. Dafoe became very famous and he used his title and the children’s notoriety to advance his medical prestige and career. He was later referred to as a “medical miracle worker”.11 This state of the art hospital was very different than other provincially funded hospitals, and so was the logic behind it. It is interesting to note how the province was able to find money to finance such a unique hospital in midst of a struggling economy. The Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was not only used for medicinal proposes of maintaining the Quints health but also, it served as a political tool in promoting the government’s exploitation of the five babies for its own political purposes and agenda: “The [Dionne] parents often complained that they had to put on surgical masks when in attendance, while famous visitors, including provincial politicians, were photographed holding the babies without any fear of germs”.12 The five babies became a political symbol that politicians tapped into during an era when economic woe and global insecurity was evident. Being photographed with the famous five linked the politician to hope. Sadly these photo ops with the Quints were just examples of how the girls were “natural resources” for the government leaders to take advantage of in promoting their own political careers.
The government also employed its legal powers to guarantee continued control over the revenues generated by the public interest in the Dionne Quintuplets. One of the most striking examples the government’s involvement with the Quints was its successful attempt to trademark the word “Quintuplet”. According to the government it was essential that the word “Quintuplet” be legally secured as a trademark to prevent commercial retailers from advertising the word without paying royalties. Dr.Mariana Valverde, fellow of the Royal Society, stated that at the time lawyers argued that this lawsuit over a common noun would never stand in federal court. However, the government found a loophole to continue in its legal battle to control and maximize its revenues associated with the Quints.13 In 1937 the government’s final attempt to gain copyright protection over the word “Quintuplet” came with the passing in the Canadian Parliament of the Quintuplet Copyright Act. The government justified its actions by passing the below Act:
“Whereas it has been, by petition, represented that it is in the interests of the above named quintuplets and of the people of Canada that a special Act be passed to protect the said quintuplets against exploitation…”14
This new bill demonstrated the bias of the government in its legal exploitation of the five Dionne children. The government’s “protective measures” to save the Quints from exploitation was in fact definition of irony and effectively showed how the government used its political power to legally control not only the Dionne family, but also to prevent other organizations from attempting to financially benefit from the famous five.
The Ontario government’s political agenda in controlling the Dionne quintuplets was most evident in its successful economic gains over a short period of time when the rest of the world was experiencing continual financial setbacks. Shortly after the Liberal provincial government gained legal guardianship of the Quints to protect the babies from exploitation, Annette, Emilie, Yvonne, Cecile and Marie became part of Quintland, one of Ontario’s most successful tourist sties within the Great Depression era. Quintland’s revenue was compared with Niagara Falls, Gettysburg and the Rockefeller Center. Between 1936-43 Quintland brought more than 3 million tourists to the remote northern Ontario location boosting Ontario’s economy by nearly $500 million.15 Leo Dylan, member of the Canadian Government Tourist Bureau, remarked to the North Bay Board of Trade in the spring of 1936 that “[Quintland] is the greatest tourist attraction on the face of the planet”.16 One of the most telling examples of how big the Dionne Quintuplets were in the 1930s was with the construction of Ontario’s Ivy Lea Bridge. One of the main reasons for the bridge to be built was to make the Quints more accessible to American tourists.17 The Quints were considered celebrity babies and American tourists flocked to North Bay, even in the midst of horrific economic times. The pressure and attention that was given to the five babies overlooked the human cost to the Quints, as long as the province was economically benefitting. The Quints later commented on their childhood: “There was so much more money than love in our existence. It took a long time to realize the effect it had on all of us”.18 Sadly, this uncivilized political strategy to value public profit over personal nurturing of the Quints demonstrates how the Quints were victimized and viewed as objects rather than humans by Ontario political leaders and strategists.
Shortly after the Quints were removed from the Dionne family farmhouse they were moved to the provincially funded hospital and lived there for 9 years. The Dionne family never slept under the same roof again as they had prior to the government’s intervention. Under the watchful eye of Dr. Dafoe and the nursing staff, the staff discouraged individualism; the five Quints did everything together - bathed, ate, fed and slept together. As popularity of the Quints increased, Dr. Dafoe’s hospital also expanded, creating a large glass-covered solarium where tourists could watch the Quints. “In 1938 traffic in the ‘one horse town’ increased to ‘bumper to bumper’. With the opening of Quintland and the Quint Observatory, the babies were available to be seen two times a day. These sightings were also known as shows. Everyone around the world heard of the news of the Quints, creating instant celebrity status for the five little girls”.19 Moreover, in 1938 alone, Quintland attracted more than 400,000 tourists to North Bay, a significantly greater number than the snowy peaks of Banff which only saw 200,000 tourists. Berton commented on the importance of the Quints in the midst of the Depression, “For a province struggling, [the Dionne Quintuplets] were as valuable as gold, nickel and hydro power. They saved an entire region from bankruptcy”.20 "‘Money was the monster,’ the Dionne Quints recorded in We Were Five 21, ‘So many around us were unable to resist the temptation.’ Although their parents lived across the road from Quintland, the couple felt unwelcome there, and became infrequent visitors. Asked what the girls’ relationship with their parents was like, Cecile commented ‘We didn't know each other’.” 22
Finally, Ontario’s manipulation of the Quints for profit also had a cultural impact. Although it may not have been as important as the government’s priority to make money, the politicians were very aware of the importance of catering to a predominantly English public. It would be this clientele that would increase the province’s funds through tourism. Quintland is geographically located between Corbeil, a Franco-Ontario town, and its English speaking neighboring town of Callander. According to Professor Welch, the Quints were actually born in Corbeil. Ironically most texts refer to their births being in Callander. Again this geographic manipulation or intentional omission seems a deliberate political move by an English speaking government to identify the Dionnes as Anglophones. The Quints were born into a French speaking home but were reared from an early age by English speaking caregivers. While in Quintland, Jacqueline Noel, a French speaking nurse, was fired and replaced by English speaking Claire Tremblay. The Dionne parents had little to no say over their own children’s education. Oliva and Elzire eventually discovered that the Quints were being taught in English rather than French and accused the Dr. Blatz, a psychologist who led a group of researchers from Toronto University23, and his St. George School teaching staff from Toronto24 of wanting the Quints to know more English for “marketing” reasons; allowing more films to be made and understood by the general public.25 Cynthia Wright, even comments that the fall of the Quints was primarily because of the refusal to learn and speak English26. This perfectly displayed how the government manipulated the Dionnes in a way that would generate more money for the government but also had a cultural manipulation of the five innocent girls.
As time passed into the early 1940’s, the time period was beginning to economically lighten up due to the demands of WWII. The Quintuplets’ notoriety was beginning to wane. The Quints were no longer babies and with their growing maturity the Quints became less of a tourist attraction. This decreasing economic value of the Quints led the campaign by the government to return the children to their biological parents in 1943. Although this custodial return of the children to their rightful guardians was the correct act to do, it should be noted that this step did not take place until it became clear that Quintland was no longer a competitive tourist attraction. This political maneuver reveals where the government placed its value in the Quints – an economic commodity. It was only a few years earlier that the government deemed Oliva and Elzire Dionne “unfit” parents. The transition to the former lives in a broken family would prove a challenge as well, and a challenge that the government seemed to completely overlook. After all, the means to make money certainly was the real deciding factor in the controlling the five girls during their earlier developmental years. Nurturing and a healthy development were not to be a priority to the government when it was not making a profit. Little did the government factor in the challenges that lay ahead for the five girls after they were reunited with their parents. Separated for nine years there were bound to be many struggled that the Dionne girls would still face; personal struggles the government never even considered or worried over. Premier Hepburn’s earlier words: “the lives of children are a bigger concern in Canada than profits of an exploitation or promotional undertaking” seemed very ironic. 27 In the mid-1930’s the Quints were objects who were moved around and bounced to whoever, as long as it benefitted the government. Sadly, this attitude would prevail throughout the Quints’ lives.
1 Arnup, Katherine. "Raising the Dionne Quintuplets: Lessons for Modern Mothers." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no.4 (1994): 65.
2 Valverde, Mariana. "Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no.4 (1994): 16.
3 Berton, Pierre. 5. The Dionne Years. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977. 69.
4 Arnup, Katherine. "Raising the Dionne Quintuplets: Lessons for Modern Mothers." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 67.
5 "The Dionne Quintuplets | Municipality of Callander." Municipality of Callander. http://www.mycallander.ca/the-dionne-quintuplets/ (accessed February 25, 2014).
6 Valverde, "Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby."16.
7 Valverde, "Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby." 16-18.
8 Welch, David. "The Dionne Quintuplets: More Than an Ontario Showpiece- Five Franco-Ontarian Children." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 43.
9 Berton, The Dionne Years, 74.
10 White, Sue. "Midland man shares memories of the Dionne quintuplets' family" The Bay City Times. N.p, 17 May 2011. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/bay-city/index.ssf/2011/05/midland_man_shares_memories_of.html
11 Berton, The Dionne Years, 19.
12 Valverde, "Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby."17.
13 Valverde, "Families, Private Property, and the State: The Dionnes and the Toronto Stork Derby."21.
14 An act for the Protection of the Dionne Quintuplets, 2nd session, 18th parliament, 1 George VI, 1937.
15 Daniel, Kaayla T. "The Dionne Quintuplets: How the Miracle Babies Survived." Nourishing Our Children. http://nourishingourchildren.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/the-dionne-quintuplets-how-the-miracle-babies-survived/ (accessed March 2, 2014).
16 Berton, The Dionne Years, 17.
17 Berton, The Dionne Years, 19.
18 Berton, The Dionne Years, 1.
19 "The Dionne Quintuplets | Municipality of Callander." Municipality of Callander. http://www.mycallander.ca/the-dionne-quintuplets/ (accessed March 2, 2014).
20 Wright, Cynthia. "They Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets Revisited." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 8.
21 Brough, James. "We were five"; the Dionne quintuplets' story from birth through girlhood to womanhood, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.
22 PBS. "The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/wichita_200803A12.html (accessed March 12, 2014).
23 Dehli, Kari. "Fictions of the Scientific Imagination: Researching the Dionne Quintuplets." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 87.
24 Arnup, Katherine. "Raising the Dionne Quintuplets: Lessons for Modern Mothers." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 68.
25 Welch, "The Dionne Quintuplets: More Than an Ontario Showpiece- Five Franco-Ontarian Children." (1994): 50-51.
26 Wright, Cynthia. "They Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets Revisited." Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): 12.
27 Berton, The Dionne Years, 74.