SAINT-BRUNO-DE-MONTARVILLE, Que. – Cecile and Annette Dionne have just two items on their wish list as they get set to celebrate their 83rd birthday Sunday.
The surviving Dionne quintuplets would like various levels of government to ensure their soon-to-be-relocated birthplace in North Bay, Ont., has a consistent source of funding once it is moved.
And in a rare interview, the sisters said they’d also like to see Canada do more to prevent child abuse.
The identical sisters were born on May 28, 1934, near the village of Corbeil, Ont., and were 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 served as a tourist attraction that poured roughly $500 million into provincial coffers.
Because of their own experience with exploitation, they’re asking the government to do more for kids across Canada.
“In our case, there were huge gaps … there was abuse,” Annette told The Canadian Press in the interview at her home south of Montreal. “So for our birthday, we wish that Canada would take better care of their children.”
“That they take the time,” Cecile chimed in. “That we can help them with their problems, that we listen to them.
“That’s what was lacking in our case.”
The surviving quints still capture the public’s interest.
Carlo Tarini, an advocate and communications specialist who works with the sisters, said they still receive letters to this day.
When news stories emerged last year that Cecile was left penniless after being bilked by a son out of what remained of her share of a settlement with the Ontario government, people sent cheques to help her, Tarini said.
The sisters are still close, often deferring to one another during conversation with a “what do you think, sis?”
While they don’t see each other in person often, they talk on the phone several times a day.
“When I realize that I start to miss her, I pick up the phone,” Annette says.
“As for our life — we live day to day — we try to take good care of ourselves and do what’s necessary to accomplish all that we want.”
The media-shy sisters, who live separately in the Montreal area, were thrust back into the spotlight this year as the fate of their home-turned-museum played out.
In April, the North Bay council voted to relocate the historic log cabin, where the quintuplets were born, to a waterfront area a few kilometres away.
Both sisters are urging governments to ensure a consistent source of funding for the building once it is moved.
“We need Madame (Heritage Minister Melanie) Joly to help us make sure this museum stays open and we’ll be happy,” Cecile said.
The question of funding weighs on them as the museum was shuttered in 2015 due to dwindling municipal funds and limited public interest.
They argue the home is part of Canadian history and deserves to be recognized as such — calling it a “moral obligation” in a letter they sent to local lawmakers.
“From a historic point of view, it would be good that it be preserved going forward,” Cecile said in the interview.
Both the federal government and Ontario said no formal application has been received with regard to funding.
“We are in discussions with the city of North Bay,” said Joly spokesman Pierre-Olivier Herbert.
Jeff Fournier, chair of the Friends of the Dionne Quintuplets Home Museum, said the issue of long-term funding is next on a lengthy to-do list once the relocation is completed sometime in June.
“We do believe that this is a national historic site, the building itself has a lot of history that’s relevant, not just to North Bay and Ontario, but to Canada as a whole,” Fournier said.
“So we don’t see why federal and provincial governments wouldn’t come on board.”
Jeff Costen, a spokesman for Ontario Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Eleanor McMahon, said the province recognizes the Dionne quintuplets play an important role in North Bay and the history of francophone Ontario.
He said in an email the department stands ready to provide assistance and is keeping tabs on what local authorities decide, adding the federal government appears ready to help.
“In this case, we’re aware that minister Joly is engaged in the issue and has expressed willingness to work with the city of North Bay and other involved parties to support the ongoing preservation of the museum’s collections,” Costen added.