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Dionne quintuplets say birth home must be preserved as part of Canadian history

Dionne quints want birth home preserved

The two surviving Dionne quintuplets are urging officials in northeastern Ontario to preserve the home where they were born, suggesting there is a “moral obligation” to safeguard a part of Canadian history.

In a letter to North Bay city council earlier this week, Cecile and Annette Dionne spoke out against a proposal that would see the home moved to a nearby community and the related artifacts handed over to museums or universities.

The 82-year-old sisters, who now live in Montreal, said their story brought the eyes of the world on the region and deserves to be preserved for future generations.

“This is a true story, a Canadian story worth remembering,” they said. 

“Our birth and survival in this small house, without heat and electricity, was a huge story during the Great Depression. The story of the first documented case of survival of five identical babies in a small log cabin, now a museum, it served to inspire and bring hope to millions worldwide also living in difficult times.”

The quintuplets were born in 1934 — the first quintuplets to survive more than a few days. The Ontario government took them from their parents and placed them in a special hospital where they spent the first nine years of their lives, and where they served as a tourist attraction that poured roughly $500 million into provincial coffers.

If the city truly cannot afford to maintain the Dionne Museum, as it is known, then it should transfer the home and its contents to the Canadian History Museum in Gatineau, Que., the sisters said.

The Dionne Museum has been closed to the public since the city’s chamber of commerce ceased to run it in 2015. Its fate has been in limbo almost as long.

The city said it didn’t have the resources to operate the museum and hoped to find someone to take it over. At the same time, it sought to sell the property, which was deemed valuable, for development.

Simply moving the building to another part of town would be too costly and there still wouldn’t be anyone to run it, officials said. The Canadian History Museum was approached at one point but showed no interest in the home, they said.

A proposal before council would bring the home to an agricultural society in the community of Strong, Ont., to be included in its efforts to create a so-called pioneer village. The vote on the matter has faced numerous delays but officials said a final decision is expected Feb. 21.

The plan has sparked controversy in the city of roughly 54,000, where a community group has formed to oppose the relocation. A petition pushing for the home to remain in North Bay has drawn some 1,400 signatures so far.

Coun. Mark King said the city wants what is best for the house, noting that the building would move just south of North Bay. “It’s not lost,” he said.

He noted attendance at the museum had dropped to below 3,000 visitors a year and that there was little interest from the community until the plan was proposed.

Jeff Fournier, who has led the community effort to keep the home in North Bay, said he can’t imagine the city without it.

“It would be like a piece of me was missing,” he said. “I was born in 1963 and the home was actually brought to North Bay in 1961 so I don’t know North Bay without the Dionne home. To me, it was always a part of my life, I knew the story from a young age.”

The Dionne sisters, meanwhile, said transferring the home to Strong would sever it from its roots.

“The Dionne Museum is our museum, but foremost it is your museum, it is the museum of your parents and grandparents and the museum of your children and grandchildren. It first serves as a reminder of how fascinating, complex, and fragile childhood is,” they said in their letter, which was read to council by a friend.

“Secondly it speaks about the concept of multiple births, once thought of as miraculous. It is also about how society and politicians sometimes bend the rules, still a very actual topic when we read the daily news,” they said.

“It may be one day forgotten that the Dionne quintuplets lived the first nine years of their lives separated from their parents and exhibited twice daily, weather permitting. That millions of tourists travelled great distances to what was then the backwoods of northern Ontario to witness this firsthand. This museum traces the story never to be forgotten of how human beings were treated because they were different.”

 

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press