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Bell of Batoche may not be from Batoche, CBC documentary reveals

04/10/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT
It's not often that the mysteries of history are definitively solved.

That appeared to be the case last summer, when the Bell of Batoche was returned to the Métis​ Nation after being taken by Canadian soldiers 128 years ago.

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However, the entire story may need a rewrite, in light of new evidence uncovered by CBC's documentary unit.​

Canadian history books tell the story like this:

In 1885, the railroad was expanding west. The buffalo herds were nearly extinct. Ottawa was parcelling off land to new settlers and speculators.

The First Nations were being pressured onto reservations, and the Métis​ were being ignored by Ottawa – their lands and their rights threatened.

Fifteen years earlier, Louis Riel had won the Métis​ their land and language rights in Manitoba.

He had come to Batoche to fight the same battle in Saskatchewan.

Within weeks, he and the Métis declared their own government and sovereignty of the northwest.

Enraged, Ottawa mobilized the Canadian army, sending 5,000 soldiers to crush the rebellion.

Seven weeks after the shooting started, the Métis​ made their last stand at Batoche.

It fell on May 12, 1885.

"Our men have been pillaging. Each man has something he intends to keep as a souvenir," eyewitness Robert Allen wrote at the time.

According to one account, sometime in the days that followed, Canadian soldiers stole the nine-kilogram silver bell as a trophy from the church at Batoche.

It was on display in a legion hall in Millbrook, Ont., until 1991, when it disappeared just one week after a delegation of Manitoba Métis leaders came to visit.

​Last August, Métis​ leaders returned what they believed to be the Bell of Batoche to the church bearing its name, which is now a national monument. 

"My name is BillyjoDelaronde. I've been the subject of speculation and bell sightings for the last 22 years," said the man who has admitted to stealing the bell from Millbrook.

"I am certain of one thing. I have risked my liberty and maybe even my life to bring Marie Antoinette home."

But, CBC's documentary unit has uncovered historical records that show that bell is actually from Frog Lake, Alta., a community 400 kilometres away from Batoche.

It's where some of the soldiers went after winning the Battle of Batoche, to quell what they were told was an aboriginal uprising and massacre.

Robert Winslow's great uncle wrote of his men taking a bell from the Roman Catholic church there.

"All was desolation," Capt. Charles Winslow wrote.

"The only thing left was a stockade fence around where the Roman Catholic church had stood, and, at the gate, two posts, on which was swinging a small bell, and as there was quite a crave for souvenirs, some of the men of my company, without my knowledge, of any of the officers' knowledge, took it down in this night, packed it in a box with some old clothing and managed to smuggle it home."

A second soldier corroborates that version of events in a diary entry found in a small museum in Caledonia, Ont.

Our company then presented the town with a large bell that we had brought from Frog Lake, to be used as a fire bell. The bell had belonged to the Roman Catholic mission at Frog Lake and one dark night two of our lads went and seized the bell and nailing it up in a wooden box had brought it home to Millbrook.

Yours truly,

Will Young

But, how did the Frog Lake bell become known as the Bell of Batoche?

​​It started in 1967 with a small error on page 53 of a small centennial yearbook published by a county historical society.

It reads: The bell that hung on the fire hall incidentally was captured from a Roman Catholic church at Batoche in the Northwest Territories during the Riel Rebellion in 1885.

Historian Juliette Champagne has combed through the archives of Bishop Vital Grandin, the man who had 20 identical church bells made, including the Frog Lake and Batoche bells.

"In all my research, I have not seen a document or a letter or a parish record that says that the bell at Batoche was stolen, never," Champagne said.

What she did find, is Bishop Grandin's account of what actually happened to theBell of Batoche.

Watch The Mystery of the Bell on CBC-TV's Doc Zone Thursday 9 p.m. (all time zones), to find out more.

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