Stolen bell of Batoche to be unveiled, returned to Saskatchewan Catholic bishop

BATOCHE, Sask. – People from across Canada are expected to visit a small Saskatchewan community this weekend to witness the return home of a significant piece of Metis history after 128 years.

It’s also hoped the unveiling of the church bell of Batoche will kickstart a resurgence in Metis pride.

The bell is to be presented to the local bishop Saturday as part of a reconciliation ceremony during the Back to Batoche days festival.

“It’s going to be a huge moment in Metis and Canadian history,” said John Lagimodiere, chairman of the Batoche Historic Site and a descendant of Metis leader Louis Riel. “This symbol of the community has been gone and held for so long, by various people, that maybe the time is right to bring it home and start over.”

The bell hung in the Saskatchewan community of the same name when the Metis were defeated during the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Federal troops took the bell as a trophy and brought it east.

It found a home in a firehall bell tower in Millbrook, Ont., until that building burned to the ground. The bell cracked in the flames. It eventually made its way to the Millbrook Royal Canadian Legion hall, where it was displayed.

In 1991, the legion was broken into and the bell removed. It hasn’t been viewed publicly since.

While some say the bell was essentially held hostage by those who took it and wanted to sell it to the highest bidder, others have hailed whoever took it as heroes for helping repatriate an important Metis artifact.

The Union nationale metisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba negotiated for the bell’s return — on condition of anonymity for whoever had it — and is to oversee its care following the ceremony in Batoche.

It is expected to be taken to schools as an educational tool and otherwise be on display at the St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg.

There is much riding on the bell. Some suggest publicity surrounding its return will kickstart a greater awareness of the Metis contribution to Canada’s history; others hope what was once a symbol of shame and humiliation will boost Metis pride.

“This is a time for people to start talking about the Metis story more than we have in the past. As Metis people, we’ve often been the third cousin in the aboriginal community,” Lagimodiere said. “This will help elevate the conversation for a while and help talk about our Canadian history that’s been so poorly taught in our schools.”

Claire Belanger-Parker has been waiting for the bell for a long time. The event manager of Back to Batoche days said rumours of the bell’s return have swirled for years. Now, she said, history is finally being made.

Many are expected to be on hand to witness the return. The festival has already exceeded a record for campsite bookings set in 2010 when 22,000 people attended the event. The phone has been ringing constantly, said Belanger-Parker. People say they are coming from across Canada and parts of the United States, she added.

“It’s 128 years of waiting for its return. “For the entire country, this is a very important event. It’s not just Metis people who are coming out. We have people from all walks of life coming to attend this event.”

Robert Doucette said he will be among those sitting “front and centre” to watch the bell’s return. The president of the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan said the bell once symbolized the struggle between the Metis and federal government.

Now, he said, it is a symbol of reconciliation and pride.

“It’s a symbol of hope, faith and belief in ourselves,” Doucette said.

“Our struggles were not in vain.”

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