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Métis ready to ring bell again

'Stolen' artifact can go public again after threat of charges dropped

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After decades of secrecy surrounding its whereabouts, an important piece of Métis history is ready to go public again.

The mysterious case of the Bell of Batoche appears to be coming to a conclusion Friday, as Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba will announce details of its first official unveiling in more than 22 years. The 12-kilogram bell, which according to a source has been recently repaired so it can ring again, is scheduled to be unveiled during a special mass July 20 at the Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue Church in Batoche, Sask.

Batoche is about 80 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba wouldn't confirm they have possession of the bell. The Manitoba Metis Federation wasn't ready to issue an official statement on the possible re-emergence of the bell, either, but an official expressed delight it has been returned to the community.

The Bell of Batoche has seen a lot since being installed in the church's steeple in 1884. After the final battle of the Northwest Rebellion between the Métis and Canadian troops at Batoche (1885), Canadian troops took a number of artifacts as "war trophies" -- including the church bell -- from the settlement and headed back east.

'It's been an open secret within the Métis community as to where the bell is and who has it, but I won't say'

-- St. Boniface Museum director Philippe Mailhot

The bell didn't resurface publicly again until 1930, finding a home in a fire station in Millbrook, Ont. In an ironic twist, the Millbrook fire hall burned to the ground a year later and the bell was cracked in the process.

The bell ended up in a display case in a Royal Canadian Legion in Millbrook and sat there until 1991, the year it mysteriously went underground.

St. Boniface Museum director Philippe Mailhot doesn't like to use the term 'stolen' when discussing the removal of the bell from the legion.

"I hesitate to say that because it had been stolen in the first place," he said. "If somebody steals your car and you go back and take it, you're not stealing it. You're taking it back."

Rumours of the bell's whereabouts have circulated for decades. There was talk of it showing up one day in Batoche. Unsubstantiated reports place the bell in a garage in the North End of Winnipeg, while others have claimed to have seen it at Métis community events.

Another popular premise that hasn't been confirmed: former MMF president and Manitoba lieutenant-governor Yvon Dumont had it tucked away in his hometown of St. Laurent.

Sources say the bell currently resides in Manitoba, but that's as far as anyone wants to go when discussing its location or how it arrived in the hands of Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba. The first rule of the Bell of Batoche: don't talk about the Bell of Batoche.

"It's been an open secret within the Métis community as to where the bell is and who has it, but I won't say," Mailhot said, adding a reason for the mystery could stem from the fear of criminal charges against those who have the bell under wraps. "It will come to light soon enough."

Mailhot said it's his understanding officials in Millbrook are ready to relinquish possession of the bell, that no charges or legal action will be taken against its 'captors,' and are happy the silver bell is back where it originated from.

"The idea being that here's a symbol of how a country that once could be divided can come together over 100 years later," he said. "The bell being back out west, back in Métis hands, is a wonderful thing."

Mailhot doesn't know what will become of the bell after the July 20 service, but figures it could better serve the community as an educational attraction.

Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) said there are several places in his ward where the bell could be put on display, but he knows where the first choice should be.

"I think the bell should go back to where it was taken from -- the church in Batoche," Vandal said. "It's where it rightly belongs."

That seems unlikely, though. The Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue Church is no longer an active parish and now serves as a Parks Canada seasonal national historic site, open only four months a year to the public.

 

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 6:48 AM CDT: Fixes spelling of 'Métis' throughout, replaces photo, adds sidebar

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