Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Story of historic Bell of Batoche's seizure disputed

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Observers might assume there's been a happy ending to the Bell of Batoche. During a ceremony on Saturday, the icon of Métis pride was returned to the bullet-riddled Saskatchewan church from which soldiers stole it a century ago.

But instead of a blessed homecoming, the bell's return has sparked a warning that the public has been duped with a fabricated story about the bell's history.

According to news accounts last weekend, it was BillyJo Delaronde, a Métis man and former First Nations Manitoba chief, who stole the bell from an Ontario legion 23 years ago.

Thousands heard his story at the church in Batoche, Sask., where the faithful gathered for their first glimpse of the bell as it was returned to the Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert on Saturday.

Now, two Manitoba Métis men are stepping forward to dispute Delaronde's account.

In 2005, it was Gary Floyd Guiboche who broke the conspirators' silence and admitted in the media he and another accomplice stole the bell. That accomplice was Delaronde, he said.

"But BillyJo's story is not the way it unfolded," Guiboche insisted in a lengthy phone interview from Stony Mountain Penitentiary on Monday. Guiboche was a free man when the bell disappeared in 1991. But since 1999, he's been serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder conviction of his common-law wife.

Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand corroborated Guiboche's account.

He said Delaronde "screwed" Guiboche and then Delaronde betrayed the Métis people by making a deal to return the bell to the church. He'll never forgive him for that, Chartrand said.

Delaronde couldn't be reached for comment Monday on the dissent his account sparked among Métis.

Guiboche recounted a story where he and Delaronde drove to Ontario to get the bell 23 years ago.

In 1885, federal troops put down the Northwest Rebellion, crushed Louis Riel's dreams of a Métis nation and seized the bell as a trophy of war. It was brought east and ended up in the Royal Canadian Legion in Millbrook Ont.

That was their destination.

They had a crowbar and a 10-tonne jack rented from a tool shop in Winnipeg.

At the back door, Delaronde fumbled with the crowbar and Guiboche told him: " 'Give me that.' I took it and I popped it open."

They were inside.

"We went to front (of the legion) and that bell was sitting there."

"We got to the bell, got the jack up. I kept pumping that 10-tonne jack and we pried the bars open.

"I took out the bell. 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."

The traditional items turned out to be military medals arranged around the bell. They stuffed the lot into an Adidas bag and, struggling under the weight, went outside.

Driving Delaronde's Jeep Cherokee, they headed west until the Jeep engine gave out in Thunder Bay.

They broke down across the highway from a Canadian Tire store, but mechanics couldn't help them that day, and rather than waiting, they called a cab to the nearest Grey Goose bus stop at a roadside restaurant. They scarfed down a hurried breakfast, loaded the Adidas bag in cargo and boarded the bus for Winnipeg.

"An eagle flew with us the whole way over the bus to Manitoba and then it left," said Guiboche.

That's a far different account from the one Delaronde gave on Saturday.

In 1991, the bell had been stolen from the Millbrook Legion in a mysterious heist and hidden from public view until last weekend.

After that, stories get tangled.

Delaronde declared he and four Métis accomplices drove to Millbrook from Manitoba on a "gentleman's dare" determined to get the bell back, calling it "Métis Mission Impossible."

While some of the men created a distraction by spilling a pouch of tobacco, others made off with the bell, he said.

The whereabouts of the bell and the details of that long ago heist have been an open secret among Métis on the Prairies. Many didn't believe Delaronde's story and they don't like where the bell is headed now, Chartrand said.

The bell is reported to be en route to Winnipeg where it's expected to be kept temporarily in the Saint-Boniface Museum. The worst is yet to come, said Chartrand. Word is the bell will be exhibited at various occasions, including socials and weddings.

That's wrong, Chartrand said.

"They commercializing the thing. It's unbelievable. It's like taking Riel's headstone and going around with it...The bell belongs in Batoche. It's caused a stir in the Métis community and they are going to figure out how to get the bell back."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 A6


Updated on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 7:44 AM CDT: corrects spelling of Métis

11:54 AM: Since 1999 Gary Floyd Guiboche has been serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder conviction of his common-law wife.

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