Can we talk about the Quints?
April 5, 2017

There are things you remember when you are little. When I was in grade two, my family moved to North Bay, Ontario. My dad wanted us to live away from the hustle and bustle of Toronto. I wasn’t so sure.

You see, I could walk to school, our condo complex had a swimming pool. I could be with my friends while still being close to home.

I thought I had it made. Then, on March break, they took me to the new house in North Bay. New school, new neighbourhood, new town. Exciting on some fronts but scary on others.

It meant that I wouldn’t have to take my bike up the elevator to park on the balcony. It meant I could have my own room. It meant I could take the bus to school. All pretty exciting.

What I didn’t quite understand is that I was living in a community famous for many things. Winter, for one. The Dionne Quintuplets for another.

I’ve been following this delicate file as the now Heritage Commissioner in my own town. The year I left for university, the Dionne home was moved to a “strategic” location on the new bypass to increase its exposure.  A visitor centre was built and managed by the local Chamber of Commerce. Seems it worked for awhile but, of late, the whole thing took a negative turn.

I visited North Bay this past summer for a family reunion. I drove by so many times. Nothing to see here. An abandonned visitor centre and an empty Dionne house.

Wait, what, how could my home town turn its back on the thing that made it famous by proximity. The Quints weren’t actually born in North Bay but in a tiny French Canadian village nearby. That didn’t stop them from taking credit, I suppose. It appears it certainly didn’t keep them from taking responsibility for it either.

It was a miracle they survived. What followed what not so much miracle as opportunism.  The five girls were put on display for all to see. Opportunistic at best and, as it happens, devastating for the girls themselves. What you think brings pride can actually be terribly destructive to those who lived it.

All this BS about moving it to a heritage park upsets me. Move it back to where it should be: in the small village. Those who want to make the pilgrimage can. Those who don’t, won’t. I think about the quints. Only two of them left. Our approach to their impact on history pretty much ruined their lives. Don’t trust me. Ask them.

We commodified five little girls for our entertainment. And we should be ashamed of ourselves. Move the house back to its origins. Tell the real story of a poor family burdened with the birth of five identical children that the government, for lack of appropriate words, f’d up.

It’s a lesson. When I saw the stories (yes, more than one) in the New York Times, I was ashamed that a town that I was so proud of, a town that had shaped me as a young person, could screw up such an important issue, it made me question my origins. Have the Dionne’s been so comodified that we’ve forgotten they are people.

That’s on us. If I had a wish, it would be that the council of the day make a deal with the original property owners where the Qunits were born and return the home to its origin. Then, it’s a history, not a travesty. And we’d learn rather than earn.