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Famous bell gets Riel Day showing

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The Bell of Batoche will be on public display at the St. Boniface Museum on Louis Riel Day as part of the 2014 Festival du Voyageur.

The museum is open on the Monday holiday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and executive director Philippe Mailhot said he'll be there to tell the bell's story.

"For some people, it's like the Stanley Cup," he said. "They'll take their selfies with the bell in the background. It's an interesting phenomenon."

The museum plans a variety of Métis-related events Monday, and it's no big deal for the bell to be on display, Mailhot said.

Secrecy has been a big part of the bell's history since it was taken as a trophy by Canadian soldiers after the Battle at Batoche in 1885.

The St. Boniface Museum has been the bell's home since last summer after it was unveiled publicly for the first time in decades at a special parish mass in Batoche, Sask.

The province declared the third Monday in February Louis Riel Day to pay tribute to the political and spiritual leader of the Métis. Many consider Riel the founding father of Manitoba.

The history of the bell is long and complicated and is bound up with Riel's life and his last stand for Métis rights. Installed in the steeple of the Batoche church in 1884, the bell was removed and taken as a trophy by Canadian troops following the final battle of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. After disappearing for decades, the bell resurfaced in a fire station in Millbrook, Ont., in 1930 but was badly damaged in a fire a year later.

The Royal Canadian Legion in Millbrook took ownership of the bell after the fire and it remained in a display case there until 1991, the year it vanished again from the public eye.

Bragging rights for who really returned the bell to the Métis has engendered contradictory accounts from several sources.

The most common accounts have former Pine Creek First Nation chief BillyJo Delaronde as the mastermind behind the 1991 disappearance, driving secretly to Millbrook to remove the bell and bring it back to Manitoba.

An equally strong account has another Manitoba Métis man confirming Delaronde was there with him, but the pair's mission was hardly as smooth a heist as portrayed.

Gary Floyd Guiboche said the pair broke into the legion in the dark with a crowbar, then used a jack to lift the bell, but it was so heavy it was hard to make their getaway.

They risked losing the bell hours later when their vehicle broke down on the highway back to Manitoba.

In the end, they made it back with the bell and the story grew even stranger.

One man who claims to have kept the Bell of Batoche under wraps told the Manitoba francophone paper La Liberté that the 12-kilogram bell briefly ended up in his oven. He said he eventually gave it to the Union nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba (UNMSJM), and from there it went to the St. Boniface Museum.

It made a brief public appearance in Batoche last summer at a special parish mass at its original home, the Sainte-Antoine-de-Padoue Church. Since then, the museum has sent it on tour to various Western Canada locations.

Mailhot said he realizes the bell is still controversial, but added it's a symbol of unity and reconciliation between the Métis, the Canadian public and the Roman Catholic Church.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2014 B1

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