Wednesday marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most amazing, uplifting and ultimately tragic stories in Canadian history. Let’s see if the lazy Canadian media, so terrible at telling Canadians stories about Canada, takes notice.
On May 28th, 1934, in Corbeil, Ont., in a tiny farmhouse, Elzire Dionne, wife of Oliva Dionne, gave birth to five identical girls, weeks premature. Today, the birth of five identical babies would still be rare, but not so unheard of that it would cause a sensation. At best, the family would get a reality show on A&E or TLC. But in 1934, no quintuplets had ever survived. The fact that they did survive, in incredibly primitive conditions, surely qualifies as one of the genuine miracles of the 20th century.
The Dionne quintuplets were a media sensation in depression-era North America. Indeed, the girls — Annette, Cecile, Yvonne, Emilie and Marie — would be a favourite of newspapers and newsreels for most of their lives. Their story is, as Pierre Berton subtitled his excellent 1978 book on their story, “a Thirties melodrama”. (The book is available at the Edmonton Public Library; I don’t know if it is still in print.) It’s a truly amazing story, with elements that would be unthinkable to 21st century audiences. I won’t go over the whole thing here, but for a pithy summery of their story, I suggest you go to The Idiot Historian, which was written by my non-idiot son, Blake. While it is not true that, as Blake writes, “The Dionne Quintuplets were often told they would form a relatively effective indoor soccer lineup if they could find a proper keeper,” the rest of it is accurate. (Might I suggest, again, a browse through the website for other historical nuggets, both domestic and international.)
I’m hoping some Canadian media outlet will take note of the anniversary. This would be a great time to showcase a fascinating, but increasingly forgotten, chapter in Canadian history, when it was judged perfectly OK to take children away from their parents and put them on display for tourists (see, I told you it was incredible). But Canadian media outlets do a terrible job of telling Canadian stories to Canadians. Many years ago, the CBC aired a terrific documentary on the Dionnes, by filmmaker Donald Brittain, which would certainly fill a hole in the CBC lineup for Wednesday (if there’s no hockey, of course). But I doubt we’ll ever see it again. History Television, which began with such promise, has no mention of the anniversary; would it be too much to ask to take Pawn Stars off the air for one night? Even Canadian History magazine (known for most of its existence as The Beaver, until current linguistic trends forced it to change its name) failed to note the anniversary.
From time to time, major events get adequate play (expect to read and hear plenty about the beginning of World War I later this year), but lesser moments in our history are glossed over and forgotten. So, so typically Canadian.
On Wednesday, the two surviving sisters, Annette and Cecile, will turn 80. They live together in St. Bruno, Que. In the extremely unlikely event either of them will read this blog, may I just wish them joyeux anniversaire. Some of us still know your story.