MILLBROOK, Ont. - Members of a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Ontario say they don't want to press charges against a Metis man who admitted to stealing the Bell of Batoche over 20 years ago, but they still want returned medals which they say disappeared at the same time.
"The bell is back where it rightfully belongs," said Dan Maebrae, who was the sergeant-at-arms at the Millbrook legion when the bell was stolen in 1991.
"It belongs to the Metis."
The historic bell was originally looted in 1885 from a church in Batoche, Sask., by troops suppressing the Northwest Rebellion led by Louis Riel. It was brought east to the town of Millbrook and was in the community's fire hall for decades before ending up at the legion.
After the theft in 1991, the bell's whereabouts remained a mystery until Billyjoe Delaronde, a Metis man from Manitoba, confessed to taking it and presented it to the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert in Batoche last month.
Maebrae, who recalls drinking with Delaronde and other Metis men at the Millbrook legion before the theft, said three medals were with the bell. Known as the McCorry medals after Millbrook man and former sergeant Fred McCorry, they had been presented to residents who were soldiers in the campaign to suppress the Northwest Rebellion.
Those medals belong in Millbrook, Maebrae said.
"They're part of the legion history. This man was a military man and it's military history. That's what the legion is about."
Nobody admits to having the medals and police do not appear to be investigating the 1991 robbery any longer.
Mounties in red serge were present when Delaronde presented the bell in Batoche, but a spokesman for RCMP in Saskatchewan said that since the case originated in Ontario, it would be up to police there to decide whether they wanted charges to be laid.
The Ontario Provincial Police investigated the original robbery, but charges appear unlikely.
"There is no active investigation," OPP spokesman Craig White said recently.
Robert Winslow is the director of a theatre company in Millbrook and he researched the bell for a play he wrote in 2000. He said the medals were presented to McCorry and members of his family who were all members of the Midland battalion of the Northwest Field Force.
Winslow, who suggested the bell is actually from Frog Lake, Alta., and not Batoche, said McCorry himself was a fiery character who fought off raids conducted by the Fenian brotherhood from the U.S. in 1866. McCorry and his nephews were the soldiers who brought the bell back, Winslow continued, and one of the nephews was a member of the detail that escorted Riel from Batoche to Regina, where the rebellion leader was hanged for treason.
Winslow said there is a newspaper account of McCorry fighting off an attempt by a Conservative MP to retrieve the bell from Millbrook on behalf of a Catholic bishop. According to the newspaper story, McCorry threatened to blast the MP with his gun if he tried to take the bell from Millbrook.
Delaronde, who was reached at his home in Dauphin, Man., said he doesn't know anything about the medals.
"I recall medals being on the wall," he said of the room at the legion where the bell was on display.
"If there are any medals, I'll make some inquiries."
According to both Delaronde and Maebrae, Delaronde and several other men arrived at the legion in 1991 and engaged in a cordial drinking session with members. The group asked to see the bell and Maebrae said he happily showed it to them.
Delaronde told the festival in Batoche that he and his companions pretended to spill tobacco on the floor and made off with the bell when legion members went to get a broom.
But he now says he actually returned to the legion several nights later, pried open a door and made off with the bell.
Gary Floyd Guiboche, who is serving time in prison for killing his wife, has said that he was with Delaronde that night.
"We saw some other traditional stuff and we looked at each other and took that, too. There was no alarm system, just wires set up, but it was a fake system," Guiboche told the Winnipeg Free Press during an interview from Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
Tony Belcourt, who was part of the group that visited the legion with Delaronde, said the medals were in a display case with the bell. But he couldn't say if they were still there when Delaronde returned later and stole the bell.
"I was not there," Belcourt said of the theft. "Billyjo said he was there."
Dave Penney, a former Millbrook legion president, said the president of the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan contacted him in 2010 and said he had an idea where one of the medals might be. Penney said Robert Doucette told him he didn't know where the bell was, but said he was hoping to arrange a reconciliation ceremony with the legion over the way the bell was taken.
Penney said he checked with the OPP to make sure Doucette wouldn't face charges. But the deal fell apart when an RCMP officer called and asked a lot of questions. Penney said he can't remember the Mountie's name or where he was from, but he said it convinced him to call off the plan.
"Why this RCMP guy stuck his oar in the water, I don't know," Penny said.
"I phoned Rob and told him, 'Don't come to Ontario.'"
Delaronde said he hopes the medals are out there somewhere.
One thing he knows for sure: he really enjoyed the night drinking with the Millbrook legion members.
"I hope some day they'll be able to come to Batoche."
— By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton