"Canada's answer to The Da Vinci Code-- except that was fiction."
--Ann-Marie Macdonald, introducing a showing of "The Mystery of the Bell" on CBC, an agency known for its reliable reporting, but which can grow goofily hyperbolic when promoting Canadian history.
In 1879, Bishop Vital Justin Grandin ordered the casting of twenty-six bronze bells for various Roman Catholic churches spread across western Canada. Two of these-- the Bell of Batoche and the Bell of Frog Lake-- disappeared in the 1880s, creating a Canadian mystery only resolved in the twenty-first century.
The disappearances connect to the tumultuous history of western Canada.
The Bell of Batoche
The North-west Rebellion of 1885, the second uprising of the Métis under Louis Riel1 brought out troops from eastern Canada. The final stand of this particular confrontation occurred at Batoche, a Métis settlement in the Northwest Territories (now in Saskatchewan). Batoche subsequently took on historical significance for many Métis, who gather there each July. According to local oral tradition, Canadian soldiers stole the bell from Saint-Antoine de Padoue Roman Catholic Church as a trophy of war. Locals came to accept the theft as fact, and the reason why the bell hanging in Saint-Antoine is not the original Grandin Bell, but a larger one, cast some years later. If soldiers from the east (who, frankly, showed little compunction about looting) had taken the Bell of Batoche, it almost certainly rested in some Ontario town.
That town, apparently, was Millbrook, Ontario. This small community, since incorporated into Cavan Monaghan, has a quaint, old-fashioned charm, and has served as a shooting location for film and television. A book published by a local historical society in 1967 openly acknowledged that the town had the stolen Bell of Batoche. Indeed, they generally hid the stolen bell in plain sight. For most of the twentieth century, it saw use in the tower of the local firehouse. At some point, locals moved the bell to the Legion Hall.
With the bell on open display, members of the Métis community began to direct their requests towards Millbrook. Local officials and the Legion refused to return it. In October 1991, several Métis leaders visited the Legion and photographed themselves with the bell.
A week later, someone broke into the legion under cover of the night and stole the bell. They also took medals belonging to Sergeant Ed McCorry, a Millbrook local who had fought in the Battle of Batoche, and therefore made as good a scapegoat as any for the original theft. The bell's whereabouts remained unknown to the public for the next twenty-two years.
Suspicion fell on Yvon Dumont, a Métis activist and political figure, although he denied having the bell. In 2005, Gary Floyd Guiboche, who had been present with the Métis group in 1991, admitted he stole the bell along with another man, though he would not give that person's name and he denied knowing where the bell might be. The accomplice, Billyjo Delaronde, stepped forward in 2013. Someone released photographs of the bell to the media, and made arrangements to present the bell to the Bishop of the Prince Albert Roman Catholic Diocese at the annual Batoche Days gathering that July. Bishop Albert Thevenot accepted the bell, which, strictly speaking, belongs to the Catholic Church. Le Musée de Saint-Boniface ultimately took possession of the relic. Delaronde made a deal whereby he would tour with the bell and tell tales of his involvement in its liberation.
Delaronde's reasons for keeping that involvement secret for twenty-two years remain vague. He has expressed concern that he would face legal repercussions.2 Others, including David Chartrand, then and current leader of the Manitoba Métis Federation, have alleged that Delaronde quietly requested money in return for making the bell's whereabouts known. Delaronde denies these accusations.
All of this publicity led to further investigation, which in turn, revealed a surprising truth.
The bell taken to Millbrook, the one tussled over for so many years and then removed at night from the Legion, the bell presented with ceremony to Bishop Albert Thevenot at Batoche Days in 2013, is not the Bell of Batoche.
The Bell of Frog Lake
We must now jump to another incident connected to the North-west Rebellion. A band of Cree, led by their war chief, Wandering Spirit, killed nine white settlers and officials after Indian Agent Thomas Quinn refused them food and provisions. A signed treaty guaranteed provision of food, and begging must have been anathema to Wandering Spirit. He did so because a harsh winter left many Cree people starving (the Cree once relied on now-depleted Buffalo herds). The Canadian government and press dubbed the event the Frog Lake Massacre. Given the broader context, who exactly massacred whom remains a fair question.
In any case, the Cree demolished the small mission community of Frog Lake, including its local Catholic Church. While researching the Batoche Bell in 2013, a Millbrook playwright, Robert Winslow, discovered that soldiers from Millbank stole the Frog Lake Bell as a trophy, and documented the fact in their private writings. Winslow's own ancestor, Captain Charles Winslow, recorded the removal of the Frog Lake Bell by his men. Private William E. Young, from Millbrook, whose journals were located two-hundred kilometres away in the archives of Caledonia, Ontario, wrote:
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. The authorities had searched for the bell but could find no trace of it.
Furthermore, the Canadian government sent a representative to Millbank to request the Frog Lake Bell's return. The Toronto Mail quotes Captain Winslow in the July 19, 1888, clearly giving the origin of the bell at Frog Lake and suggesting the town return it. The town refused, and eventually the matter was dropped. The point remains: long-ignored documents clearly indicate that the Canadian government and the Catholic Church made attempts to retrieve the bell, and that no one at the time disputed it had come from Frog Lake.
As the years passed, no one in Millbrook much worried about the distinction between the two bells, despite the fact that they came from two different communities, separated by four-hundred kilometres. The book Two Centuries of Change, United Counties of Northumberland and Durham, written in the Centennial year of 1967,3 misidentified the bell as the Bell of Batoche. With so little local history preserved as anything but musty, long-unseen documents, no one challenged the identification.
But no doubt remains that the historical society goofed. The Saint-Boniface Museum accepts the conclusion as well. The bell held in Millbrook for so many years and touted as the stolen Bell of Batoche must be the Bell of Frog Lake.
So what did happen to the Bell of Batoche?
A Familiar Ring
Others picked up the trail blazed by the small town playwright. The CBC pursued the matter, culminating in "The Mystery of the Bell," a 2014 documentary.
Their research into various archives led to further surprising discoveries. While Bishop Grandin wrote several letters in an effort to locate and retrieve the Frog Lake Bell, he made no attempts to find a missing bell from Batoche. Meanwhile, no written documentation supports the oral tradition claiming anyone stole the Batoche Bell. In fact, research reveals another story entirely.
Five years after the North-west Rebellion, Saint-Antoine de Padoue Church expanded and received a prominent steeple. Grandin ordered a new, larger bell cast. The original Bell of Batoche went to the church in nearby St. Laurent de Grandin, where it rang regularly. Once again the bell hid in plain sight; Catholics consider St. Laurent a shrine, and it holds particular significance for many Métis. Over the decades, many people must have heard the bell ring, not knowing it was the missing Bell of Batoche.
Unfortunately, a fire in 1991 destroyed the church and melted much of the bell. Only the clapper remains intact. The rebuilt church displays the clapper and other melted portions. Examination leaves little doubt, however, that it was one of the original Grandin Bells ordered in 1879, while the surviving documentation clearly identifies it as the original Bell of Batoche.
Everyone now accepts this conclusion, save for Billyjo Delaronde and some of his supporters.
Cree elders in Frog Lake, meanwhile, have requested the return of their bell.
1. The Métis, whose unique culture developed from a blend of Native cultures and early European fur-trappers and explorers, play a key role in the shaping of western Canada. The earlier "Riel Rebellion," the Red River Rebellion (1869-1870), led to the creation of Manitoba and guaranteed Métis and Roman Catholic rights in that province.
2.A plausible fear, though, in the history of this case, which begins with looting by troops and includes a break-and-enter (investigated by local police), and other legally problematic acts, and the presentation of hypothetically stolen property at a public event at which the RCMP were present, no one seems to have been charged with anything.
3. The books deals with the history of local settlement of Europeans, which predates the Canadian Centennial by at least a century, hence the Bicentennial title.
"Bell of Batoche." Wikipedia. Accessed December 28, 2017.
"Bell of Frog Lake." Wikipedia. Accessed December 28, 2017.
Bishop Vital Grandin. Letter to his nephew and sister, January 30, 1879. Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA), 84,400 Box 41, Item 1025. Reproduced at CBC DocZone.
Certificate of Blessing the Bell, St. Laurent Chapel. St.Laurent-de-Grandin file, Archives of the Diocese of Prince Albert. Cloche de Batoche, September 2, 1884. Reproduced at CBC DocZone.
Column, Toronto Mail, July 19, 1888. Reproduced at CBC DocZone.
Adrien Morrow. "Bell of Batoche returned by Métis man with explanation of theft." The Globe and Mail. July 21, 2013. Updated March 26, 2017.
"The Mystery of the Bell." Doc Zone. CBC. April 10, 2014.
Alexandra Paul. "Bell of Batoche really the Bell of Frog Lake." The Winnipeg Free Press April 14, 2014.
"Revelations on Bell of Batoche fuel new debate." CBCNews. April 11, 2014. Updated: April 12, 2014
Will Young, Diary entry. Edinburgh Square Heritage and Cultural Centre, Caledonia, Ontario. Reproduced at CBC DocZone.
Letters pertaining to the Frog Lake Bell. Port Hope Evening Guide, July 13, 1888. Reproduced at CBC DocZone.