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Happy birthday Cécile and Annette (9 photos)

Only two of the Dionne quintuplets have survived to their 87th birthday. Quintland has not

Friday, May 28 is the Dionne Quintuplets 87th birthday. Two survive, Annette and Cécile. The ‘Quintland’ nursery was recently torn down; heritage comes with a price although we are taught to appreciate it.

They are the first quintuplets known to have survived infancy. The identical girls were born just west of the village of Corbeil, east of North Bay, but most do not know the exact location. Will someone help?

They were born across the road from what is now Nipissing Manor, a retirement home on Hwy. 94, which connects Highways 11 and 17, between Corbeil and Callander.

There is no blue and bronze highway plaque to commemorate the location of what was the beginning of a Northern Ontario tourism industry and an economic development impact like no other, it was a natural resource of a different kind.

Canadian historian Pierre 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 hydropower. They saved an entire region from bankruptcy.”

The event captivated the world during an economic depression and World War II. The Dionne Quintuplets are the first identical quintuplets known to have survived their infancy. All five survived to adulthood.

The well-known story is tragic. The parents were Oliva and Elzire Dionne, the girls were born two months premature, midway between the villages of Corbeil and Callander.

After four months with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years. The provincial government and those around them began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction.

Approximately 6,000 people per day visited the observation gallery that surrounded the outdoor playground to view the Dionne sisters. More than 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943. Of course, you want to know where.

In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house within walking distance of Quintland.

The yellow brick, 20-room mansion was paid for out of the quintuplets' fund.

The building is now the Nipissing Manor, beside it was Quintland. 

In 1998, the sisters reached a $2.8 million settlement with the Ontario government as compensation for their exploitation

Spatially it is interesting to return to the site to piece together what was if you know where to look.

Natasha Wiatr is the curator for the Callander Bay Heritage Museum.

“We were allowed to take a piece of wood from the playground structure after it was demolished to place in our collection, so that’s something We also have a block of wood from the original construction of the nursery in 1934, so they will complement one another,” she said during the demolition of the nursery.

She finds the quint story fascinating. 

"I love talking about the history of the buildings and Quintland,” Wiatr said.

And she knows the location details.

When you are standing in front of the fence with a few strands of remaining barbed wire, the cabin that is the pinkish, small building to the right (east), was the north exit from the Quintland observatory horseshoe-shaped playground. It was later turned into a small chapel for the family, but is now boarded up, Wiatr says.

The green fencing is all original from that time period and the two stone pillars are as well.

They used to hold a sign that read ‘The Dafoe Hospital for Dionne quintuplets’ but Dafoe was later removed, likely after the family received guardianship over the girls - given the hostility towards Dr. Dafoe.

The bored drill holes remain.

"The sign showed up in an auction recently in California, but was too expensive for us to buy, unfortunately," Wiatr said. "It is actually the north exit section of the observatory that is still there."

Two years ago Sarah Miller released her new book The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets

There has not been a comprehensive, objective look at the Dionne story since Pierre Berton’s The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama was published over forty years ago.

Where Berton tackled the greater political, cultural, and social climate that created Dionne-mania, Miller aimed for something more immediate and personal.

The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets plunges readers right into the story — feeling what Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie and their parents and siblings and caregivers were experiencing — without sacrificing accuracy or succumbing to dramatization,” the author said.

There is plenty of perception.

“I took pains to ensure that voices from all sides would be heard, and as much as possible in their own words. Mrs. Dionne’s voice, in particular, is largely absent from prior tellings," said Miller. "She’s traditionally portrayed as a meek and passive woman who sat at home quietly longing for her daughters when just the opposite seems to be true.

"Though her grief was indeed the centrepiece of the Dionnes’ campaign to regain custody of their children, Elzire Dionne often spoke out in an 'emphatic way' with 'lightning-quick intelligence,' which is evident from the many interviews she granted to popular women’s magazines of the day.

"Magazines like Liberty, Modern Romances, and True Story are largely forgotten, effectively silencing Mrs. Dionne, and, to a lesser degree, her husband.

"Those are the kinds of obscure sources I mined in search of new insights into the Dionnes’ lives,” said Miller.

Also in 2019, there was a novel by Shelley Wood entitled Quintland Sisters, written from the perspective of a fictional midwife in training who might have helped bring them into the world.

There were siblings born before and after the quints. All but Émilie were later discovered to be right-handed and all but Marie had a counter-clockwise whorl in their hair.

Another unique fact: there was a sixth baby (sharing an embryonic sac) that was miscarried.

Good exhibits exist at the nearby Callander Bay Heritage Museum, and the homestead is part of the North Bay’s waterfront. It was transported there in three sections on Nov. 19, 2017, and there is a plaque. It was unveiled to commemorate the national historic significance of the birth of the quintuplets – far from where it all began.

See the map.

Émilie is buried in Corbeil, along with most of the extended family, but Marie and Yvonne are buried in St-Bruno-de-Montarville.

Highway 94 connects Highways 17 and 11 there is enough traffic.

At one time it was bumper to bumper for thousands on a daily basis trying to reach this iconic destination.

Another birthday passes. If you can find the manor, the pillars and the original green fence, then close your eyes, the outlines and the spirits of five little girls playing within their ‘Quintland,’ may appear, if there was only a heritage plaque, passersby would stop again and wonder.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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