Author Archive for Romane Savard-Guzman

The Dionne Quintuplets: Canada’s Favorite Babies

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By Ava Sanaye, Audrey Santerre, Romane Savard-Guzman, Maddie Tanenbaum, Maya Tinoli and Alexandre Renaud

 

The Dionne Quintuplets: Annette, Cécile, Émilie, Marie and Yvonne, in 1936. [36]

 

In the 21st century, nothing seems to surprise us anymore. We have various television shows about big families like “Kate plus 8” or “Quints by surprise”, while social media barely blinks at the fact that Kim Kardashian West is having her third child by surrogacy (not that it is that interesting).  In the 1930s however, the arrival of the Dionne quintuplets during the Great Depression was something so out of the ordinary, and the population was so desperate for “good news”, that the media hounded the children and the family. It was a miracle, a little bit of light in the darkness; a moment of joy for Canada. The story of the Dionne quintuplets is “a moment that matters” in Canada’s history because it was and still is deeply controversial. That is why we chose it. Some see it as a story of exploitation, government over-reach, parental abuse, showing a society who used innocent children for personal gain,[1] while others see it as a joyful and entertaining moment, as part of the Canadians’ collective memory.[2] Therefore, we argue that the Dionne “Quints” left their mark on the political, economic, and social spheres of influence in Canada. Before explaining their story as well as its significance for the country, we will begin with the bigger socio-economic context: The Great Depression.

 

The Great Depression in Canada

The Great Depression had immense impacts all over the world, including in Canada. In 1929, when the market crashed in the United States, it left millions of Americans unemployed and unsure of what steps to take next – the same happened to their Canadian neighbors. Before the Wall Street Crash, consumers were facing enormous amounts of debt, while many markets depended on these customers to purchase what was being put on the market. Whereas people were trying to deal with their debts, “speculators began to manipulate stock prices, buying and selling, in order to increase their returns.”[3] Consumers expected the stock prices to grow, therefore they would be able to repay their debt. This method was indeed thriving, until the “stock decreased in value.” Canada’s unemployment reached 27% and the GDP dropped by 40% between 1929 and 1939. While people in the city tried to figure out what to do next, farmers in the Prairies were also struggling because of the downfall of wheat prices. Canada’s economy at the time was just starting to move from “primary industry (fishing, farming mining, and logging) to manufacturing,”[4] when exports of raw materials dropped – “prices fell in every sector.” As people in the workforce struggled to get their lives back on track, women’s jobs became that much harder. During this time, a women’s primary role was to be a housewife. Ultimately, a family without a stable flow of income would force a woman to find a job and also to keep dealing with food, clothing and medical care. Because of this increase in labor for women, the birthrates in Canada dropped, causing even more economic concerns.[5]

        In fact, the economic crisis had as much impacts in the city as it did in the rural areas, but it especially hit poorer families. The federal government, led by the Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, generally refused to provide work for the jobless, insisting that this issue was “primarily a local and provincial responsibility.”[6] In the case of Ontario, a province known to be comprised with a French-Canadian community, the Depression hit much of the region’s economy and population. Among the French and English-speaking people, social and ethnic divisions were common in the region and resulted in significant economic tensions between both communities. Accordingly, the prosperous service centres were more likely to be English speaking, whereas the French-Canadian towns often remained less developed.[7] Typically, in northeastern Ontario, the rural economic life was still based on a mixture of lumbering and agriculture, where most of the French-Canadian community lived in farming villages. [8] Much of the region’s economy was devastated, with the closing of pulp and paper mills, a considerable slowing of mining activity and the closing of the lumber camps. However, some families were able to survive the crisis, especially if “they possessed land and remained on it,” as had most of Franco-Ontarians.[9] Ultimately, the Depression resulted in an expansion of state responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, as well as for the economy of the country, though it had taken time for the federal government to acknowledge the amplitude of this economic crisis.[10]

 

The Dionne quintuplets

The Dionne quintuplets, Annette, Émilie, Yvonne, Cécile and Marie, were born on May 28th, 1934 in Ontario, to French-Canadian farmers Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The birth of the identical sisters was attended to by Dr. Allan Dafoe who, according to some sources, only arrived after the birth of the second child. In part because he did not intend to come at all and in part because he realized what sort of miracle was going to occur during an “age when records [were] being broken.”[11] Interestingly enough, he had declared after the births that the five girls would not survive.[12] Later on, in many of his articles he boasted about his accomplishments, stating that he dealt with the birth “extremely efficiently” and won the “epic struggle.”[13] Accusations against him had also been laid, with one writer saying that he was only present in the lives of the girls because of the possibility of financial gain and fame.[14] In any case, after their survival was guaranteed, their existence quickly became synonymous with financial exploitation, as predicted by The British Medical Journal, which was conviced of their entertainment success mere days after their births.[15]

          On May 27th, 1934, the parents of the quintuplets had signed a contract stipulating that in exchange for profit, the girls could be exhibited at the Chicago’s World Fair.[16] While the father is typically blamed for the exchange, the contract had been discussed between the mother and the parish priest of Corbeil, Father Daniel Routhier. Father Routhier, interested in building a parish in Courbier, agreed to take 7% of the profits, in exchange for representing the Dionne sisters, while the Dionne family themselves would take 23% of the profits.[17] It was after this moment that the government stepped in, taking guardianship of the quintuplets, declaring them wards of the Crown. Under the leadership of Dr. Dafoe, who was given the responsibility of taking care of the quintuplet’s health, the five girls were moved to the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery to ensure their survival.[18] While they had been protected from exploitation at the Chicago fair, they were going to be exploited by the government instead. At the nursery, the girls would be brought to the balcony to be viewed by the crowd of people, which averaged about 6,000 a day.[19] Attending Quintland was free, but profits were still garnered with a nearby store which sold postcards, dolls, etc. Furthermore, the quintuplets would star in advertisements for companies like Madam Alexander Doll, Quaker Oats and Palmolive oils. They also starred in four movies about their story, though not as the center focus. Over two decades, the quintuplets brought in a revenue of $500 million, saving the province from bankruptcy.[20] Of the profit, the quintuplets only received $1 million as part of their trust fund which they would be able to access after the age of 21. At the age of 9, after a long custody battle, the girls were returned to their family. However, they were still exploited for their labor. Later on, in adulthood, the women also spoke out about sexual abuse at the hands of their father.[21] At the age of 18, they left their home and broke all contact with their parents. But their lives did not get any better. Émilie became a nun and died in 1954 while Marie died in 1970 due to a blood clot. Yvonne died in 2001. The remaining two sisters are currently living in financial difficulty in Quebec, even after having won a $4 million settlement with the government.[22]

 

A moment that matters

All things considered, the controversial story of the Dionne quintuplets clearly left its mark on Canadian society. This moment is significant in the history of Canada because of its political, economic and social implications. Politically, even if governmental aid was scarce during the Great Depression, social welfare was expanding and state intervention for child-care started to become part of the government’s priorities.[23] For instance, the government took custody of the quintuplets and provided them with a safe environment as well as the best specialists to assure their survival.[24] Yet, as mentioned earlier, the paradox is that they were moved away from their family for fear of exploitation, while the children became major assets for the province itself.[25] Actually, the government and Dr. Dafoe came to be seen as saviors, while the Dionne parents “came to be seen as semi-villains, standing in the way of a better life for their children.”[26] Moreover, the fact that the twins generated massive revenue to the province as a tourist attraction[27] demonstrates the economic impact of their story. Equally important is the role they played in entertainment media, since their life story was hard to beat. For instance, it was said that they joined the ranks of young Hollywood star Shirley Temple.[28]

        Nonetheless, the social aspect of this moment is undoubtedly the most mesmerizing for Canada’s society. The “Quints” provoked some kind of euphoria in the entire nation and even worldwide. They were in every single newspaper and everyone talked about them. Indeed, when talking about the girls, complete strangers referred to them as “our babies” and some had gone as far as to say that they felt like they knew them. Not to mention that people came by the thousand just to see them.[29] Some hanged pictures of them in their living room and there was even a Quintuplets’ Fan Club. They also attracted the interest and sympathy of many Canadian mothers, who surprisingly donated breast milk to the girls for as long as they needed it.[30] Furthermore, the fact that they were the first known quintuplets in history to survive past a few days accounts for the developments in expertise and technology for child-care at that time.[31] Therefore, not only did they become a cultural phenomenon in the 1930s, but they also grew to be part of the Canadians’ collective memory. Even today, and for many people, the Dionne sisters “represent the innocence and joy of childhood and the wondrous possibilities of human life; for others, the miracles of science and modern medicine; and for still others, the illusive promise of fame and riches.”[32]

 

Conclusion

To summarise, structural changes experienced during the political and economic turmoil of the Great Depression severely affected the Canadian population. This economic devastation had caused an increase in unemployment rates, along with food insecurities through the entire nation.[33] However, in the midst of this chaotic downturn, the arrival of the Dionne quintuplets had left a significant impact across the country. Whereas many denounced negative intentions from the family and the government[34], others played along with the “Dionne sensation”. [35] They have left their mark on the Canadian political, economic, and social spheres for many reasons, including governmental aid, tourist revenue, entertainment media, exploitation and medecine progress. But more importantly, they are now part of the collective memory of the Canadian citizens. After facing child labor and sexual abuse, the five sisters took different paths, where two of them are currently living in Quebec.

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Notes

[1]. Dennis Gaffney. “The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets,” PBS (2009). Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/wichita_200803A12.html.
[2]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 26, 2018.
[3]. Christina D. Romer. “Great Crash and the Onset of the Great Depression” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford Academic (1990): Accessed February 26, 2018. https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/105/3/597/1864581.
[4]. “The Great Depression,” History Museum, accessed February 26, 2018. http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/medicare/medic-2c01e.shtml.
[5]. “Great Depression in Canada,” Wikipedia, accessed February 26, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression_in_Canada.
[6]. James Struthers. “The Great Depression,” Canadian Encyclopedia (2013): Accessed February 27, 2018. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/great-depression/.
[7]. David Welch, “The Dionne Quintuplets: More Than an Ontario Showpiece- Five Franco-Ontarian Children,” Journal of Canadian Studies 29, no. 4 (1994): Accessed February 27, 2018, https://search-proquest-com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/pio/docview/1300021971/D38E51B190F24F4APQ/6?accountid=12339.
[8]. Ibid.
[9]. Ibid.
[10]. James Struthers. “The Great Depression,” Canadian Encyclopedia (2013): Accessed February 27, 2018. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/great-depression/.
[11]. “The Quintuplets,” The British Medical Journal, no. 8346 (1934): Accessed February 25, 2018. www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25341813.pdf?refreqid=search%3A7f33adc4065bc9ba68cca8694f279d2e.
[12]. David Welch. “The Dionne Quintuplets: More than an Ontario showpiece-Five Franco-Ontarian children,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 29, no.4 (1994): Accessed February 25, 2018. https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/203554972?accountid=12339.
[13]. “The Quintuplets,” The British Medical Journal, no. 8346 (1934): Accessed February 25, 2018. www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25341813.pdf?refreqid=search%3A7f33adc4065bc9ba68cca8694f279d2e.
[14]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/j.ctt80q62.37.
[15]. “The Quintuplets,” The British Medical Journal, no. 8346 (1934): Accessed February 25, 2018. www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25341813.pdf?refreqid=search%3A7f33adc4065bc9ba68cca8694f279d2e.
[16]. Dennis Gaffney. “The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets,” PBS (2009). Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/wichita_200803A12.html.
[17]. David Welch. “The Dionne Quintuplets: More than an ontario showpiece-Five Franco-Ontarian children,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 29, no.4 (1994): Retrieved from https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/203554972?accountid=12339.
[18]. Dennis Gaffney. “The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets,” PBS (2009). Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/wichita_200803A12.html.
[19]. Ibid.
[20]. Ibid.
[21]. Clyde H. Farnsworth. “Three Dionne Quintuplets Say Father Sexually Abused Them.” New York Times (1995): Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/26/world/three-dionne-quintuplets-say-father-sexually-abused-them.html.
[22]. Ian Austen. “2 Survivors of Canada’s First Quintuplet Clan Reluctantly Re-emerge.” New York Times (2017): Accessed February 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/canada/ontario-dionne-quintuplets.html?hpw&rref=world&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well.
[23]. James Struthers, “Great Depression” last modified March 4, 2015. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/great-depression/.
[24]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 26, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/j.ctt80q62.37.
[25]. J.M. Bumsted, The People of Canada, A Post-Confederation History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2013), 272.
[26]. Ibid.
[27]. Ibid.
[28]. Ibid.
[29]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 26, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/j.ctt80q62.37.
[30]. Ibid.
[31]. J.M. Bumsted, The People of Canada, A Post-Confederation History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2013), 272.
[32]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 26, 2018. http://www.jstor.org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/stable/j.ctt80q62.37.
[33]. “The Great Depression,” History Museum, accessed February 26, 2018. http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/medicare/medic-2c01e.shtml.
[34]. Dennis Gaffney. “The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets,” PBS (2009). Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/wichita_200803A12.html.
[35]. Katherine Arnup. “Mothering the Dionne Quintuplets: Women’s Stories,” In Framing Our Past: Constructing Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sharron Anne Cook, Lorna R. Mclean and Kate O’Rourke, McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001): Accessed February 25, 2018.

 

Photo credits

[36] 20th Century Fox Film Corp, The Dionne Quintuplets: Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie, Yvonne, photo, Everett Collection, 1936. Retrived from https://www.everettcollection.com/#/image/40375/0/CfDJ8A327mqg_41Eu3Okc-JuVhGNZVYCdiyCvlaJrDALlRKDUUkHltAYfKruoeGkz_9QpqEzkDyet3UQ1njJEjtABdPV30iBIpGuJG0UztHOsOYxdJJAAZpwCvA2xLEwPyye1Q?query=dionne%20quintuplets.

 

 

 

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