On a fall night in 1991, Billyjo DeLaRonde snuck through the back door of the Royal Canadian Legion in Millbrook, Ont., and made for a glass display case. He removed a silver-plated bell, about 30 centimetres tall and weighing 40 kilograms, took it out to his Jeep and drove away.
When his vehicle had engine trouble on the trip home to Winnipeg, Mr. DeLaRonde packed his precious, purloined cargo in his wife's hockey bag – emblazoned with the team name "Riel's Rebels" – and took it on a bus.
This feat of derring-do might sound like a heist but, to Mr. DeLaRonde, it was an act of patriotism. That bell, dubbed Marie Antoinette, had hung in the church at Batoche, Sask., the centre of the Metis uprising of 1885. When Canadian troops put down the rebellion and hanged its leader, Louis Riel, a group of Millbrook soldiers stole the bell and brought it with them to Ontario.
For 22 years after Mr. DeLaRonde's daring caper, he kept the bell hidden. Finally, this past weekend, it was returned to Batoche – and its remarkable story could finally be told.
Mr. DeLaRonde, a former head of the Manitoba Metis Federation and chief of a First Nation northwest of Winnipeg, first laid eyes on the bell in October, 1991. He had travelled to Millbrook as part of a delegation of Metis leaders. They visited the legion and had their photograph taken with the artifact.
"It was in a glass prison and it didn't belong there," Mr. DeLaRonde said. "I said quietly to myself, 'Marie, I will be back for you.'"
Roughly three weeks later, he made good on his word.
When he first got the bell home, Mr. DeLaRonde stored it in his oven. Over the years, he transferred it between a series of trusted friends around Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He said he instructed the various people who held onto it not to tell him where they were keeping it so that, if asked, he could plausibly deny knowing where it was. On one occasion, when the bell was being transferred to a couple in Winnipeg, Mr. DeLaRonde brought it to Riel's tomb.
"I said 'Hey, Louis, does this look familiar?'"
Several people, from Metis leaders to the Ontario Provincial Police to a Saskatchewan cabinet minister, tried to find the bell, to no avail. In the absence of hard evidence, rumours swirled. Two people claimed to have seen it at a Winnipeg home. Others said it was buried underneath a swimming pool. In 2005, a man named Gary Floyd Guiboche told The Globe and Mail that he and an accomplice had taken the bell. (In that same article, Mr. DeLaRonde dropped a cryptic hint: "There's a time and a place for everything," he said. "When the time is right, it should be on display somewhere.")
Today, Mr. DeLaRonde won't offer many specifics of his caper, including how many people were involved, but he says Mr. Guiboche was not. He also says most of the stories told about the bell were untrue.
About a year and a half ago, Guy Savoie, an elder with the Union Nationale Metisse St-Joseph du Manitoba, got in contact with Mr. DeLaRonde and began talks to persuade him to turn over the bell. With the help of Albert Thévenot, Bishop of Prince Albert, Sask., Mr. Savoie convinced Mr. DeLaRonde.
On Saturday, before thousands of people gathered in Batoche, he formally turned Marie Antoinette over to the Bishop. For the first time in more than a century, it rang out over the town.
For the time being, the bell will be housed in the Saint Boniface Museum in Winnipeg. Mr. Savoie said the bell should be in a place where it will be seen and appreciated.
"You feel elated, you feel a high respect for it. The bell is a spriritual thing," he said of the first time he laid eyes on it. "It is hard to describe – your emotions are running high."