A year ago, the so-called bell of Batoche was brought out of hiding at the Métis’ Back to Batoche celebration. Upon its return in 2013, like some holy relic, people wept as they touched it and had their photo taken beside it. Ironically enough, the 20-kilogram bell is named Marie-Antoinette, coincidentally that of the French queen who is said to have quipped “let them eat cake” when the people had no bread. Some wit had said it long before, and she never did.
This is the nature of popular myths: Like zombies, they rise again and again. Last April, CBC’s “Doc Zone” aired “The Mystery of the Bell” along with supporting documents, proving that bell really was from the Frog Lake Mission.
The Northwest Rebellion was as close as Canada ever came to a civil war, at a time when racism was rampant and land rights for the Métis were ignored. In 1885, the Métis in their battle with the Canadian militia were defeated at Batoche. The provisioning of the hungry native peoples on the reserves was also a problem and, at Frog Lake, resulted in the assassination a month earlier, of nine, possibly 10 people, by the young men of Big Bear’s band who were guests of the Frog Lake First Nation. When the missionaries of the Diocese of St. Albert came to claim the bodies of their two priests, they asked the soldiers to take down their bell from the tower next to the burned out mission. That was the last they saw of it. Will Young of Millbrook wrote of how “two of our lads seized it in the dark of night” and that it was “the best relic brought to Ontario.” There was widespread pillaging by the soldiers — everything that could be taken was stolen from the wide area of the uprising or was despoiled: horses, cattle, guns, furs, food supplies, clothing, even that of children! Houses and buildings were burned or soiled.
Bishop Vital Grandin raised a hue and cry in Ottawa over his lost bell, but it was hidden in Millbrook for many years, then used as a fire bell and finally exhibited in the local legion hall. It was stolen back by a Métis about 20 years ago, a play has been written about it and two songs: one French, the other English. Still, the death knell to the myth began sounding with the discovery of Will Young’s diary in 1999.
The historical record was always there. There is a claim to the federal government for damages to the missions of the Diocese of St. Albert; in the list for the Frog Lake mission is: “1 bell at 50 cents a lb (freight included) = 30$.” The current holders of the bell, the Union Nationale Métisse de Saint-Joseph du Manitoba, claim the bell is from Batoche, saying the one at Frog Lake weighed 200 pounds. That is a 125-year-old transcription error by the typesetters.
In 1967, there was a mention in a local history book from Ontario that the bell at Millbrook came from Batoche. This was brought to the attention of the Parks Canada staff, then busy interpreting the Batoche site to the 1890s, not 1885, as a new bell had been installed in 1892 in a taller church steeple. What became of the old bell was not recorded; one individual recalled his elderly grandmother had said she saw soldiers steal the bell at Batoche, which lent some credence to the story.
But the Batoche bell was never stolen. The ancient tradition of baptism of church bells records the event just like a person’s baptism. Marie-Antoinette was christened on Sept. 10, 1884, by Bishop Grandin at the St-Antoinede- Padoue Church of Batoche; in 1937, she was given away. Written in French is: “this bell having ceased to be of service after the purchase of a large bell in 1892 ... “ In the nearby Duck Lake parish register and that of Batoche, there are notes to the effect that she was given to the church of St. Laurent-de-Grandin.
A photo circa 1970 shows her near the door of the chapel on a metal pole, with the characteristic markings of the 20 or so sister bells purchased in 1879 — three symbolic rings encircling it along with the bishop’s crest. In 1990, with much-needed repairs to the log church, she was placed in a belfry on the roof. No sooner was this done than an arsonist’s fire reduced the building to ash, and the bell to molten brass that was recovered in the cinders. Her clapper survived the inferno — it is the same as that of her sister bells.
A symbol for the Métis, this bell that has survived these many years is also remembered by the Frog Lake First Nation who seek to honour the fervent wish of their ancestors to have it returned. Church property, they hope Bishop Therio of the Diocese of St. Paul will intercede for them, so it may become a key artifact for an interpretative centre they are planning. It would tell the story of the tragedy of the Frog Lake Massacre, one that was not of their doing, but has shed negative light on their home for the last 125 years.
» Juliette Champagne is a historian of Western Canadian history in Edmonton. This article was also recently published in the Winnipeg Free Press.