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Sisters Triumphant

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Cecile Dionne’s pilgrimage to the site of her childhood home in Corbeil, Ont., last summer was an unsentimental journey. “You can still see bits and pieces of barbed wire,” Dionne, 63, says of the now empty lot where she and her sisters once played behind chain-link fences. Six decades ago, in what now seems a stunningly cruel and greedy act, Cecile and her sisters—Annette, Yvonne, Emilie and Marie Dionne—the world’s first known surviving quintuplets, were taken from their impoverished parents by the Ontario government and displayed in a specially built theme park called Quintland, to be gawked at by tourists. “Everything was scheduled from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening,” says Cecile. “It was like a circus.”

The quints proved a lucrative sideshow. Companies including Quaker Oats paid a total of $200,000 a year to a trust fund to use their image in ads. According to a recent audit, Ontario netted $350 million in quint-generated tourism revenue. Yet by the time the five came of age, most of their share of the trust—once estimated to be worth $15 million—had been spent on the upkeep of Quintland. Far from retiring in luxury, the surviving quints—Cecile, Annette and Yvonne—have spent recent years scraping by on Yvonne’s “600-a-month librarian’s pension and sharing Annette’s heavily mortgaged Montreal home.

But the sisters may soon be looking for new digs. On March 6 the Ontario government offered the sisters an apology and $2.8 million in compensation. More important, say the women, is the government’s promise of an inquiry into the finances of Quintland—and their stolen youth. When that’s over, says Cecile, “we’ll celebrate. Only then will we rejoice.”

Even now, their birth seems extraordinary. “The nurse said we looked like wounded birds,” says Annette, who, like the others, weighed about 2 lbs. Their parents, poor farmers, already had five children (three more would follow), making it easy for the government to justify removing the quints as wards of the province. Although Quintland was just opposite their family’s house, the sisters recall their parents visiting only once. “We had bicycles, we had dolls—everything but family,” says Annette. Each day they were sent out to play as throngs of tourists—124,000 visited one July—watched through gauze windows in their playground fence. Outside, local farmers—including their father—set up souvenir stands to cash in on the trade. “Everyone exploited us,” says Annette, “even our parents.”

When the tourist trade dwindled and they were returned to their family at age 9, the quints claim, they were resented by their siblings, beaten by their mother and sexually abused by their father. Annette says she confided in a priest, only to be advised “to put on heavier coats.” When the claims surfaced in a 1995 biography, Dionne Quintuplets: Family Secrets, their siblings issued a statement denying the allegations.

At 18, all five left home and broke off communication with their parents, who have since died. Cecile became a nurse; Annette and Yvonne worked as librarians. But despite their newfound freedom, their adult lives were marred by loss. In 1954, Emilie died of an epileptic seizure (all the quints had epilepsy) shortly before taking her vows to become a nun. Marie, a florist, would die from a blood clot in 1970. “Losing our sisters,” says Cecile, “was like losing a part of ourselves.” Though each received a final $119,000 from the trust fund at 21, it didn’t last long. Their cloistered youth had left the quints clueless about money—”They didn’t even know how to shop,” says their biographer, Pierre Berton—and men. “Because we never had anyone really to care for us,” says Annette, “we were quick to marry the first men who showed interest.”

Three were wed, had children—10 in all—and divorced within a few years. But the sisters put the past behind them until 1994, when Cecile’s son Bertrand, 36, saw a TV movie about Canada’s famous quints. “I looked at our financial situation—we were living near poverty—and didn’t understand,” he says. After digging through archives that detailed how the quints’ money was misspent, Bertrand wrote to the government. In February the province offered them $1,400 a month for life if they kept quiet. They didn’t, and the outcry resulting from press coverage forced the government into the $2.8 million settlement. The premier of Ontario even dropped by with a coffee cake to apologize.

As she muses about buying some new clothes with her share of the money, Cecile has especially deep regrets for her lost sisters. “We feel they are looking down at us,” she says. “And they might be smiling.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Natasha Stoynoff in Saint-Bruno