The Saga of the Bell of Batoche by Terry & George Goulet

It has been recently reported in the media that the long-missing Bell of Batoche is to surface at the Métis celebrations at Back to Batoche Days on July 20, 2013.

Batoche is a Métis settlement founded by and named after Xavier Letendre dit Batoche, a direct ancestor of Lyle Letendre, President of Kelly Lake Métis Settlement Society and a Director of the BC Métis Federation. Batoche is located southwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and is the site of the last battle of the North-west Uprising of 1885. It was at this site that the Métis, led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, were crushed by the overwhelming Canadian Forces led by British Major General Frederick Middleton.

On the hill above Batoche is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Antoine de Padoue. In 1884 the Bell was installed in the Church and was baptized Marie Antoinette. After the 1885 Battle of Fish Creek, General Middleton took over the Church and used it as an infirmary for the wounded Canadian troops and had the nuns from St. Laurent provide nursing services.

After the Métis were defeated at Batoche, some plundering Canadian soldiers looted various items at Batoche as well as some of the surrounding areas. The looters included the pompous and paunchy General Middleton. A House of Commons committee later found that the furs belonging to a Métis prisoner Charles Bremner had been misappropriated by Middleton. The Committee censured Middleton’s actions holding that they were “unwarrantable and illegal”. As a result he was forced to resign from the Canadian Militia.

Among the other items pillaged by the Canadian soldiers after the fighting ended was the Bell of Batoche, which has significant cultural and religious meaning for the Métis. They took the Bell to Ontario in 1885 and subsequently it was kept in the fire hall at Millbrook for many years. Eventually it ended up in the Canadian Royal Legion Building where it was put on display.

However in 1991 there was an overnight break-in at the Millbrook Legion and the Bell vanished. Only a short time prior to the break-in, a Métis delegation had visited the Legion to view the Bell. Tony Belcourt was one of the delegates. Belcourt was a founder of the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) and is a past President of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

According to Belcourt the other Métis with him were Yvon Dumont (then President of the Métis National Council); Ron Rivard (then Executive Director of the Métis National Council); Billy Joe Delaronde (then Special Assistant to Yvon Dumont); and Joe Mazur (then with the Manitoba Métis Federation). To date no one has publicly admitted to taking the historic Bell of Batoche.

The whereabouts of the Bell since 1991 has been a mystery. However on June 21, 2013, National Aboriginal Day, l’Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba (“l’Union Nationale”) made an announcement relating to the Bell. It stated that on July 20, 2013 at the Back to Batoche Days festival the Bell will be turned over to the Bishop of Prince Albert at a 4:00 pm Mass at St. Antoine de Padoue Church in Batoche. There was no indication as to who would produce the Bell at the Mass.

L’Union Nationale is the oldest Métis organization in Canada and is non-political and focuses on Métis history and culture. It was formed in 1887 by, among others, Joseph Riel (the brother of Louis Riel) and Pierre Delorme (a member of Louis Riel’s Provisional Government in Red River and the great grandfather of George Goulet).

The announced intent is that after Back to Batoche Days, l’Union Nationale will be entrusted with the Bell since the St. Antoine Church is presently on the grounds of a National Historic Site under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada. If after Batoche, l’Union Nationale receives custody of the Bell, the intention is for it to be placed on permanent display in the St. Boniface Museum except for approved tours and special events.

David Chartrand, President of the Manitoba Métis Federation is reported to have stated that he knows who has had the bell for the last 22 years and that: “The people who have had it all this time are a bunch of thieves”. However Tony Belcourt has stated that whoever repatriated the Bell “… is far from being a thief. He is a hero….”

Several weeks ago the Métis journalist Todd Lamirande of Aboriginal Peoples Television Network interviewed (without identifying) a person who claimed to have the Bell. Todd stated that this person would be identified on the program “APTN Investigates” on July 19, 2013.

It is said that there are some Saskatchewan Métis who are determined that on its return the Bell will stay in Saskatchewan. It may be that the Bell will not see the light of day at Batoche as there are a number of people who are not happy with the announced plans for its return and custody.
The final fate of the Bell of Batoche is uncertain. Only time will tell – stay tuned.

Prepared July, 2013 by:
Terry Goulet, B.Sc.(H.Ec.) & George Goulet, B.A., LLB, LLM.
© George and Terry Goulet

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