Billyjo Delaronde, a Metis man from Manitoba, shared his story with thousands as he gave the bell back to the Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert.
Cast in solid silver and standing about 30 centimetres tall, the bell is an important cultural relic of Canada’s Metis.
The bell was seized from Batoche’s church as a trophy of war by federal troops who put down the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, crushing the dream of Metis leader Louis Riel to build an independent Metis state. It was brought east and eventually ended up in a Royal Canadian Legion hall in Millbrook, Ont.
In 1991, it was stolen from the Legion by unknown conspirators and wasn’t seen publicly until this weekend.
Delaronde said he and four Metis accomplices travelled to Millbrook on a “gentleman’s dare,” determined to get the relic back.
“It was Metis Mission Impossible,” Delaronde said.
Some of the men created a distraction by spilling a pouch of tobacco, he said, while others made off with the bell.
Delaronde said that in 1967 the federal government asked the Millbrook Legion to turn over the bell and return it to Batoche, but the request was refused
“I believe I repatriated the bell,” he said. “There was no intention of ever stealing the bell from them, because it was ours.”
Delaronde said he never feared prosecution for stealing the bell, but still feels a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders.
During a mass held at Batoche, Delaronde told his story before handing the bell – wrapped in buffalo skins and a Metis flag – to the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert.
Monsignor Albert Thevenot, also Metis, negotiated the return of the bell.
“One idea he had was to throw it in a lake, because it could cause a lot of commotion,” Thevenot said. ”But friends convinced him he had to bring it back to Batoche.”
Since the bell was property of the church, it is not considered stolen property Thevenot said.
“We checked out to see that no legal problems would come,” he said. “I’m the owner of the bell.”
Robert Doucette, president of the Metis Nation of Sakatchewan, said hearing the bell – known amongst Metis as Marie Antoinette – brought tears to his eyes.
“For the first time I really felt a lot of the unity that has been missing was there today,” he said. “The nation has turned a corner.
“The bell belongs to all of us.”
Guy Savoie, an elder with the Union Nationale Metisse St-Joseph du Manitoba, said the bell will initially be displayed at the St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg, which has a large collection of Metis artifacts.
The bell will not be remounted in the church steeple from which it was stolen 128 years ago, Savoie said, no matter how bad Parks Canada may want it.
‘I don’t care what the feds feel about it,” he said. “It’s not their bell.”