It looks like a significant piece of Canadian Métis history will soon be returned to public view after disappearing more than 20 years ago.
But one of the country’s top Métis leaders is not excited that the bell of Batoche may finally be brought back to its home in Saskatchewan.
David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, says the historical significance of the bell has been tarnished by those who have held it for the last two decades and tried to sell it to the highest bidder.
“Getting the bell back, what does that mean after it was stolen by thieves and they sold it for us to get it back? It’s really lost its real meaning,” Mr. Chartrand said. “It’s about the money. It wasn’t about our people. They’ve taken that poor bell and tainted it with such thievery ... Those are robbing thieves, that’s all they are.”
The bell of Batoche hung in the Saskatchewan community of the same name when the Métis were defeated during the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Federal troops climbed the bell tower, removed the trophy and took it east.
It found a home in a fire hall belltower in Millbrook, Ont., until the building burned to the ground. The bell was cracked in the flames. It eventually made its way to the Millbrook Royal Canadian Legion hall where it was displayed.
That was until 1991, when the legion was broken into and the bell removed.
It hasn’t been seen publicly since.
Cast as Robin Hood figures by some, its holders have never been publicly outed.
Mr. Chartrand said he was once close to securing the bell’s release. He negotiated and agreed to pay a fee and ensure police wouldn’t lay charges. In return, the bell was to be returned to Batoche.
But the bell’s keeper backed out after repeatedly upping the price and Mr. Chartrand refusing to pay more.
“It was just a game to them.”
Now a Manitoba Métis group is hinting it has plans to return the bell to the public.
Elder Guy Savoie with the Union nationale metisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba said his group will talk about the fate of the bell at an event in Winnipeg on Friday.
“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 Mr. 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 bell is an important part of Métis history and it should be treated accordingly, Mr. Savoie said.
“A bell is a living thing. It calls people to weddings. It calls people to baptisms, funerals, mass on Sunday.”
Philippe Mailhot, director of the St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg, said for the bell for too long represented defeat and humiliation.
“It was sort of an open scar, especially for the Métis of Western Canada,” Mr. Mailhot said. “It’s bad enough your resistance is crushed by Canadian authorities, your leader Louis Riel is hanged and for 100 years the Métis are essentially shunted to the sidelines of history — the forgotten people.”
After the Battle of Batoche, Mr. Mailhot said, the town was looted and everything down to the candlesticks was carted off as spoils of war. Despite negotiations in the late 1980s, the bell remained where it was — in a display case in the legion.
He said that after it was taken, the bell’s whereabouts were an “open secret” in the Manitoba Métis community. To have it returned to its original home makes it a symbol of hope, Mr. Mailhot suggested.
“It shows how the country has changed,” he said. “What was once a trophy of war 100 years ago, or as recently as 40 years ago, is now hopefully going to become a symbol of reconciliation and a symbol of a better understanding between the people of Canada.”