Researchers have unearthed a document trail that reveals what really happened to a historic Canadian artifact — the Bell of Batoche.

The CBC documentary unit has found evidence the bell that was ceremoniously returned to Batoche, Sask., and the Métis Nation last summer, 128 years after being taken by Canadian soldiers, is not the real Bell of Batoche, but was in fact a bell that had been sent to Frog Lake, Alta. — 400 kilometres from the Saskatchewan community.

They discovered a series of handwritten certificates and notes that show the bell that was hanging in the Batoche chapel in the late 19th century had been donated to another Catholic mission in nearby St. Laurent de Grandin, about 12 kilometres away.

That church was built by Rev. Jules Le Chevallier, and he needed a bell.

Historian Juliette Champagne combed through parish archives and discovered the baptismal certificate that came with the bell when it was donated to St. Laurent. It’s signed Vital G, bishop of St.Albert.

Sept. 2nd, 1884 - We, Bishop Vital G. Grandin, Bishop of St. Albert have blessed the bell for the Mission of St. Antoine de Padoux, Batoche . This bell having been blessed in honour of the very blessed virgin and of St. Anthony bears the name of Marie Antoinette.

That certificate is accompanied by a note signed by Father Le Chevallier.

This bell having ceased to serve the parish of Batoche after a considerably larger bell was purchased in 1892 has been given by the parish priest with the agreement of the parish synod and has been raised in the bell tower of the new chapel at St. Laurent during the summer of 1937.

“If you take that literally, this is Marie Antoinette,” said Celine Perillat, who runs the historical centre in nearby Duck Lake, and has access to the shrine now on the site.

Le Chevallier’s original church burned down in 1990. The bell burned with it. Only a few chunks of copper and the clapper survived. The shaft measures 29 centimetres in length and matches the Grandin bells cast in France.

Juliette Champagne

Le Chevallier’s original church burned down in 1990 and the bell burned with it. Historian Juliette Champagne is pictured with remains of the bell. (CBC)

The pieces are kept under lock and key in a glass case in the shrine.

“I think it’s in its proper place,” Perillat said. 

“The bell if it was donated ... to St. Laurent from Batoche, then it became part and parcel of the history of the St. Laurent parish.”

Le Chevallier’s church has been rebuilt and pilgrims come every summer to pray at the shrine. Some of them have claimed miracles after their visit.

“I would say that it’s in its resting place because the true Bell of Batoche is the one that sits in the steeple now,” Perillat said, referring to the bell that is now in the National Historic Site at Batoche.

“It’s the one that the ​Métis people have used for all these years. It’s the one that you know has rung in the services, has brought in the baptisms, celebrated the weddings. It has sounded the funerals. It’s the bell of the people who lived and persevered and survived at Batoche."

Bell's important history

The story of the Bell of Batoche has been an important part of western Canadian history since the days of Louis Riel.

The church bell was taken by Canadian soldiers as a trophy of war during Riel's last battle in 1885. It was on display in a legion hall in Millbrook, Ont. until 1991, when it disappeared. It resurfaced last summer and was returned to Saskatchewan.  

Last year, Billyjo DeLaRonde came forward, admitting he and and four Metis accomplices were the ones in 1991 who travelled to Millbrook ​to steal the bell from the legion. DeLaRonde, who returned the bell to Saskatchewan last summer, said he's not convinced by the evidence uncovered by the documentary.

He believes the bell he stole is the real Bell of Batoche. He said bullet marks on the bell he stole are proof, since Canadian militia shot at the Batoche chapel. 

He said the documentary also glossed over testimony by the late Senator John Boucher of the Métis National Council.

"He talks about his grandmother telling him that he seen the soldiers, three of them, take the bell down and hide it at the riverbank, and when they left, they took the bell with them."

DeLaRonde said he knows some people will be swayed by the documentary.

"There's nothing in the program that changes my mind. In fact, I'm more confident and  my belief in the stories my elders tell me reaffirms this is Marie Antoinette, the Bell of Batoche."

With files from The Canadian Press