Last surviving Dionne quintuplets hope to preserve childhood home
Sisters want government money to keep museum running, maintain symbol of their struggle
Annette and Cecile Dionne don't get many birthday cards anymore.
Once a wonder of the world and a major tourist draw, the two surviving Dionne quintuplets say the next generation has lost interest in their story, as they approach their 83rd birthday.
It's not normal for a human to be watched like that all the time.- Cecile Dionne
After shying away from the spotlight in recent years, the sisters are speaking out in an attempt to convince the Canadian government to protect the house where they were born.
"We might be dreaming," said Cecile Dionne, speaking from her sister Annette's condo in Saint-Bruno, on Montreal's South Shore.
"But if this is one little step, that would be nice."
Cecile wants the log house in North Bay, Ont., preserved as a symbol of their story — both their incredible birth and the struggles that followed.
The Dionne quintuplets made history when they were born on May 28, 1934, believed to be the first quintuplets to survive past infancy. Their births stunned the world at a time when multiple births were rare.
- FROM THE ARCHIVES | Birth of the Dionne quintuplets
In the years that followed, their story generated intense interest and people flocked from around the world to see them.
An entire multimillion-dollar tourism industry was built around them, but little of that money went to the sisters.
When they were four months old, the Ontario government removed the quintuplets from their family and deemed their parents unfit after their father agreed to display them at the Chicago world's fair (he later changed his mind). They were made wards of the Crown and moved into a special nursery and observatory called Quintland, with scheduled viewing times for the public.
Cecile hopes if the North Bay house is preserved, it can serve as a reminder and a warning against that kind of exploitation of children.
"Because we went through many things. It's not human what happened to us, and we don't want it to happen again with ... other children," she said.
'We didn't feel free'
During the Dionnes' time at Quintland, tourists clamoured for a view of the girls playing, singing or dancing in their play yard, and there were countless quint-themed souvenirs for sale.
"We went through many things," said Cecile, explaining that although she and Annette have some fond memories of Quintland, it was no way for children to grow up.
"We didn't feel free," she said. "It's not normal for a human to be watched like that all the time."
In Quintland, the girls were tended to by a team of nurses and were on display for thousands of curious tourists.
At the time, they were among the most photographed children in the world.
In 1998, the three surviving sisters at the time got an apology and a $4-million settlement from the Ontario government for its role in mismanaging a trust fund meant to support them.
It was a financial boost the sisters needed, as they had been struggling to make ends meet in their adult lives.
'We were not a real family'
The quintuplets never returned to that log house they were born in.
For decades, it was a Dionne quintuplets museum, but interest waned over the years, and visits plummeted, so it closed in 2015. The modest log house now sits near a busy highway intersection in North Bay, across from a car dealership and a Tim Hortons.
Last month, North Bay city council voted to keep the house in North Bay but move it to a new location.
The federal heritage department says it has not yet received a formal request for funding from the sisters or the city.
Their parents, Elzire and Oliva, regained custody of the quintuplets when they were nine, but life did not get easier for the sisters.
After years apart, Cecile says, the bond with their family was broken.
"It was a bad experience," she said. "We were not a real family. We didn't know each other. There was no love between the children and the parents."
Annette adds: "We remember that it was more happy to live in the nursery than at home."
In past interviews and in a 1995 book written about the quintuplets, some of the sisters also alleged their father was abusive.
Sisters turning 83
Cecile and Annette turn 83 on Sunday.
They both live quiet lives now, speaking infrequently with other family members, relying more on each other even in their waning years.
"I don't want to count on her too much," Cecile said. "When one of us dies, it will be more difficult." Annette agreed.
Both sisters say there are few others who could ever truly understand them in the way they understand each other.
The sisters don't seem to mind getting less attention from the public, but they do hope their struggle will not be forgotten.
Annette says she gave a book about her life to one of her sons, but he never finished reading it.
"The new generation is different," she said. "I don't want to be sad about that. I think that's the way it goes."
With files from Jessica Rubinger