Years of mistrust surrounding the Bell of Batoche have left the mysterious piece of Canadian history tarnished, says the head of the Manitoba Metis Federation.
MMF president David Chartrand was less than impressed with the news the famous silver bell is about to be unveiled later this summer. It was stolen from the Métis settlement of Batoche, Sask., by Canadian troops following the final battle of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 and lifted once again from a Royal Canadian Legion hall in Millbrook, Ont., in 1991, only to be out of sight for the next 22 years.
Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba (UNMSJM) has scheduled a Friday press conference to reveal details of the bell. Details of the announcement remain scarce, but it's believed the organization has assumed informal custody of the artifact and it will be a part of a parish mass next month at Saint Antoine-de-Padoue, the Catholic church in Batoche from which it was stolen in 1885.
"We've got an announcement prepared as to the bell, what's going to happen to it and where it's going to go," said UNMSJM elder Guy Savoie, who added the group has been negotiating with the bell's keeper for a long time. "He's disposed to return the bell, and this is what the announcement is."
'The people who have had it all this time are a bunch of thieves'
It stands to be an important moment for the Métis community: a piece of history taken at an important time in Canada's past, now returned to its place of origin. But for Chartrand, the bell represents little, due to his attempt to secure it after it mysteriously disappeared from the Millbrook legion.
"The people who have had it all this time are a bunch of thieves," Chartrand said, adding he knows who has held the bell for the last 22 years but cannot identify the person for fear of legal repercussions.
"It should have been handed over as soon as they had it. Any historic connection to the bell... they've robbed us of that, they've tarnished that. To me, the bell has really lost its lustre."
Chartrand said he was in talks with the bell's keeper for the last 15 years, trying to settle on a deal that would be fair for all parties involved. "They had no excuse not to part with it," he said, noting the legion, RCMP and representatives of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments were involved in the various stages of negotiations."
At one point, Chartrand reached an agreement for $17,000 with the bell's keeper. Whenever a deal was close, more money was demanded, he said.
"At one time, it was a true Robin Hood story: stolen from us, stolen back for the people," he said. "Years later, it's nothing but an attempt of someone trying to make a few bucks for being a thief. From my perspective, whoever has the bell... they can keep it."
Chartrand, who floated the idea that a duplicate bell could have been forged during the last two decades, wasn't sure how the UNMSJM brokered a deal to secure it.
While Chartrand may not feel a connection to the bell, there are some who do. Darren Prefontaine, an author and researcher with the Saskatoon-based Gabriel Dumont Institute, the education arm of the Métis nation in Saskatchewan, calls the return of the bell "a significant moment" for a community that was generally ostracized by the rest of the country.
"It became such a symbol of loss," he said. "It was not only taken from them, but the years following the battle were extremely difficult. (The 1885 battle) really hardened some negative positions in Anglo-Canada regarding the Métis community and First Nations people in general. Having the bell back won't erase what happened, but it will help move things forward."
Roland Bohr, an associate professor in the history department at the University of Winnipeg, suggests the return of the Bell of Batoche could be another bridge between Canada and the Métis community.
"We're all Canadians at this point, right? This is a part of Métis history, but it's also a part of Canadian history, too," he said.
"Events like this could be the start of more co-operative relations in the future."
-- with files from The Canadian Press
Do you think the Bell of Batoche is a significant icon of Manitoba history? If not, what is? Join the conversation in the comments below.