Canada’s Five Not-so-Carefree Teenagers

By Mavis Gallant
Standard Staff Writer

Canada’s best-known tourist attraction, the Dionne quintuplets, are a paying proposition again. They were almost forgotten during the war, when gas rationing made the long trip to northern Ontario impossible. But now although the quints are 15 and have been on public display for nine years, the tourists are back.

Those who try to see them may not get the reception they expect. Not only are the girls not on show, but they live behind an eight-foot fence which is topped with three strands of barbed wire. Large signs warn the visitor that there is no admittance and no parking permitted at the gates.

Yet around Callander there is little to warn the tourists that the quints are no longer riding their tricyles for the public. Just outside Callander, and in excellent repair, are government road signs pointing to the Dafoe Hospital and the home of the quintuplets. In Callander itself, Madame Legros, a midwife at the birth of the girls, still sells souvenirs and without much prompting will show strangers the basket in which the babies were placed on the night of their birth.

The commercial prosperity which followed the tourist influx of 15 years is still much in evidence, particularly on the eight-mile highway been North Bay and Callander. There are stretches where you can’t see Lake Nippissing for the tourist camps. The famous road which the Ontario government built to facilitate tourist traffic between Corbell and Callander is still in top condition.

Here, as early as mid-spring, visitors are seriously making their way to the Dionne home simply for the privilege of standing outside the fence and waiting a glimpse of the harassed five. Some of the them may have been guided by a newspaper story which advised that the best time to see the quints was at noon, “when they run from their schoolhouse to their home for lunch.”

But trying to talk to the quintuplets is like trying to carry off the Crown jewels. Oliva Dionne no longer allows it unless there is a specific reason. He is wary of newspapermen, mostly because he has been so “ridiculed and misquoted” in the press. The few reporters he still trusts have access to the property, but their writing, if they want to continue covering the Dionnes from inside the gates, must be fairly innocuous.

My interview with Dionne was arranged with some difficulty. He remembered The Standard chiefly for an article on Leonard Wookey, the reeve of Callander, the subhead of wich read, “The quints take a back seat when Leonard Wookey’s around.”

We agreed that in terms of world interest the quints took a back seat to very few people, and from there on the interview went splendidly. Dionne met me at the gate wearing khaki trousers, a gray flannel shirt, and a battered hat. For a moment I didn’t recognize him and the question was further confused when he remarked: “Sometimes I’m Oliva Dionne and sometimes I’m not. It depends on who wants to know.” He speaks English with only the faintest trace of French accent.

The Dionne home is a tremendous institutional looking building. Estimates of its cost run anywhere from $50,000 to $125,000. The grounds have not been landscaped, which increases the austere look of the property. Directly across the highway is the small house in which the quints were born. It, too, is posted with no admittance bulletins. Ernest Dionne, the eldest child, lives there now with his wife. It is a rather goldfish bowl existence for tourists are just as anxious to photograph the cottage as they are the quints. Though he was young at the time time, Ernest probably remembers the reporters who used to climb trees outside his house in order to peer at Mrs. Dionne through the window.

As a result he has developed what could be called the Dionne personality: an extreme reticence with strangers, cast-down eyes, and conversation guarded by the knowledge that everything will be repeated.

Dionne is very proud of his house. A picture of it is printed on all his stationery, and he did not appear to agree with me that its design and general appearance resembled a convent.

Our interview took place in his library, a small, attractive room, the dominating feature of which is the Dionne family tree. After the birth of the quintuplets, the family on both sides was traced back several hundred years.

The walls are covered with photographs of the quintuplets and there are also a number of books. Dionne’s friends that told me that he was self-educated and extremely well-read. Most of his books are English and include several novels of Maisie Grieg, Kathleen Norris and Faith Baldwin. There are seven copies of Lillian Barker’s The Quints Have a Family. Miss Barker, a New Yorker newspaper woman, accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Dionne to New York several years ago and then wrote a book about the family.

During the interview, Dionne volunteered absolutely nothing. He was polite, detached, and uninformative except with the stock routine about the quints studies and their adily schedules. However, when I mentioned the tourist trade, he became talkative.

In the town of Callander, many people are still wrangling over the Dionne-Dafoe quarrel. In recent years, a new controversy has cropped up. How much did the quintutplets do for Callander? Some people, who prospered under the tourist traffic, claim that the girls were responsible for the town’s prosperity. But other businessmen claim the tourists meant nothing, that they were a floating population who did nothing for the stable business of the district. One businessman claimed the tourists were “mostly riff-raff” who hurt the area more than they helped it.

Dionne knows exactly where he stands. “There was nothing here before the quints,” he said firmly. “Outside here was a dirt road. There weren’t half the buildings in Callander. But people are full of jealousy. Take my word for it, everybody made money out of them. I could show you a farm near here, all run down, because the owner went into the souvenir business. Some people around here have made a career out of the kids. There is even one person who rents spyglasses so that tourists can watch us through the fence.”

We left the house and walked across to the schoolhouse to see the quintuplets. Across the road was a large frame building, in poor repair, topped by a huge billboard which announced that the booth was “operated by the father of the quintuplets.”

The girls see this every day. It was here that Dionne used to sign autographs for the thousands who came to inspect the babies. It was here, too, that he wanted to install gasoline pumps and was dissuaded. The building appeared to be in sad shape and the five pictures of the quints as children were almost peeled off the billboard.

I asked Dionne why, for the sake of the girls he didn’t tear it down.

“Because I run it,” he said. “It’s my only source of income.”

Dionne is reputed to receive a big budget from the quintuplets’ estate, which is still controlled by the Ontario government.

“I do have the budget,” he added, “but it’s hardly enough. People think I can dip into the quints’ money any time I want to. Well, it isn’t true. I operate the farm, but who can make money out of that? When I built that souvenir booth, everybody was making money out of the kids, so I figured why shouldn’t I? Anyway, it wasn’t my doing but the government’s. They have out the ice-cream contract.”

Avoiding what appeared to be a long-dead issue, I asked Dionne how it was that he managed to send his children to private school if he had no money. (The quintuplets are the only members of the family who attend school on the property.)

“I manage,” he said shortly.

The quints attend school in the old Dafoe hospital. It was from here that they were shown, as infants, four times a day. This was the hospital, built by public subscription, which was opened when the girls were four months old. Dionne and his wife had not attended the opening because of “shyness”.

Now 10 boarders live here, handpicked by the Sisters of the Assumption who conduct the classes. They share the quints’ classes and are their sole contact with the world outside the fence.

The girls were sitting at a table in their old nursery, dressed exactly alike in blue jackets trimmed with braiding, and black skirts. They were almost startlingly pale. Their hair was pulled back and tied at the neck with enormous ribbons. They stood up politely and we exchanged some non-committal remarks in French.

It was not an atmosphere conducive to chatting. The quintuplets are shy. Only a visitor with the hide of an elephant could fall sense to it. Moreover, any interview really boils down to one question only: “How does it feel to be unique in the world?” It is doubtful if they know just how they do feel about it, since they discuss nothing personal except with each other. And in any case, the visitor is at a disadvantage. The quintuplets may be unique, but reporters are an old story to them. They know exactly how to say nothing.

The sister superior of their small school is Amee des Andes, an intelligent, sensible teacher.

“They are tired of being on show”, she said. “When they were being exhibited to tourists four times a day, they knew perfectly well they were being watched. Toward the end, they had to be forced to go into the play yard. Imagine telling children to go out and play spontaneously when they are aware that they are observed.”

“They have individual personalities,” she went on, “but they think alike. The biggest danger is that they should think en bloc. They dislike being separated and they show no desire to live any way other than they do now. The best thing for them to do now is get an education. In their early years, the tourist trade interfered seriously with their schooling.”

Remembering the rumor that two of the girls were planning to become nuns, I asked if they had indicated any choice of career.

“If they have, it is their own secret.” She said. “I think their private ambitions should be respected. But we also believe it would be a serious mistake for the girls to decide on a course of action until they have seen more of the outside world.”

One of Dionne’s friends had told me that the most ironic thing about the quintuplets was the fact that they had received no sex education and had no ideas where babies come from. Thus, they had lived all their lives as curiosities without knowing what made them so curious. I tried asking about it as delicately as I could, but apparently the approach was too circuitous. Both Sister des Anges and Dionne blank for a moment, after which, the Sister explained that the quints were very artistic but poor in arithmetic.

Outside, I asked Dionne if it was true the quints had known they were on show as children.

“I’ll show you the play pen,” he said.

Like all the Dafoe-era buildings, the play yard is still intact. It is a small, grassy square, now unkempt and grown with woods. Surrounding it on three sides is a wall of screens behind which tourists used to watch the children at play. Even without spectators the pen would give one the feeling of being shut in. There are large signs reading “Silence” and “Your Co-operation is Requested”. Nothing has been touched, though it is nine years since the little girls were last shown here.

“Watch me,” Dionne said, “and you can see for yourself if the screens are really one-way.”

He vanished behind the screens and reappeared as a ghostly white figure. I could see him clearly as he walked all the way around the outside corridor and I could hear his footsteps. It must have been an extraordinary experience for the five children to play “spontaneously” four times a day with a never-ending procession of white, shuffling shapes peering at them.

Around the play yard is a small cement track. “That’s where they used to ride their tricycles,” Dionne explained, “Wouldn’t any parent want to put a stop to that sort of thing? No wonder I fought hard to have them taken away from that doctor.”

“That doctor” was Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the man who is generally conceded the credit for having saved the quints’ lives. It was he who raised them in the early years when the Ontario government stepped in to save the children from, “certain death in some vaudeville show,” by making them wards of the state.

It is true that Dionne caused a great deal of local bitterness when he refused to have his children exhibited any longer. One hotelkeeper in Callander complained to me that he, like many other people, had invested heavily in enterprises connected with the tourist trade. “Then,” he said, “they just stopped showing them without warning and left us high and dry.”

Just how much the quints’ public antics meant to local trade was demonstrated in 1940, when it was suggested that the girls appear at the New York World’s Fair. North Bay and Callander merchants, owners of tourist homes and hotdog stands, all put pressure on the government to prevent having them removed at the height of tourist season.

But even now, nine years later, they are still getting the backwash of that trade. Many of the tourists who originally came to see the children now return for the hunting, fishing and swimming. Outside the old playpen, Madame Legros conducts a thriving business in her second shop, a ramshackle frame building much like Dionne’s souvenir booth in appearance.

It still carries the long discussed clock face which once announced “the time of the next showing of the babies.” More remarkable still is the bin of “fertility stones” which stands near it. Local pebbles by the carload were dumped into it at one time and carried off by visiting women who apparently believed that children were the result of minerology. To this day, tourists can be seen peering anxiously into the bin just in case the old magic still applies.

The whole area, with the tumbledown booths, the high fence and the severe brick house, is a monument to legal battles, wrangling, and unhappiness.

I asked Dionne if he did not believe it would be better for the girls to be sent away to school, so that they could become accustomed to the run of life outside the fence.

“But where could they go where they wouldn’t be stared at?” he asked.

I suggested that he split them up, sending three to one boarding school and two to another.

“But who would survey them?” he said, “We have to think of kidnappers. Of course they have been warned and warned that all their lives they will have to be careful of what they do and say. No, I don’t think it would be a good thing.”

The quintuplets now live on a rigid schedule. They set up at 6.30am and go to mass. There is a chapel and a resident priest on the property. They help prepare breakfast and help with the dishes. Mrs. Dionne has no servants and all the school-age children are away. By 8.30 the girls are in class, where they remain until noon. They are back by 1.30, with only a brief break in the afternoon. They study until six pm, help prepare dinner, and are in bed by half-past nine.

When they go shopping, they are always accompanied by a nun. If they see a movie, it is arranged so that they can go early in the morning with no other audience present. They get along well together, according to Dionne, still showing the docility observed in the when they were children and receiving close medical attention.

In three years, the girls are coming into an estate of over $1,000,000. Many people feel it could have been much more “had the quints been handled property.”

“Everyone has always tried to tell me how to run my business” was Dionne’s answer to this.

What they will do is anyone’s guess. By that time they will be ready for university or marriage. But whether they will be willing to go outside their fence, or let anyone in, is a question that non one can answer now.

– Montreal Standard, August 9 1949.