Manitoba should take steps to allow the long-missing Bell of Batoche to be returned to Saskatchewan, a Métis leader says.

Gabriel Dufault thinks it's time for Manitoba's Justice Minister Gord MacIntosh to re-open the case and follow the bell's trail before it gets too cold.

"He should be doing something, negotiating with the people in Ontario," said Dufault, who's with the Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph, Manitoba's oldest Métis association.

The bell is an important symbol of Métis culture, and a mystery.

In 1885, Ontario soldiers viewing it as a trophy of war took the bell from its home in a church in the Métis settlement of Batoche, Sask, about 75 kilometres from Saskatoon. The Ontario troops had just won the last battle of the Northwest Rebellion, which saw Métis leader Louis Riel was convicted of treason and hanged.

The bell ended up in a legion hall in Millbrook, Ont., about 100 kilometres northeast of Toronto, where it remained until 1991.

It disappeared one night in October of that year, just a week after then-Manitoba Métis Federation president Yvon Dumont, his assistant and several other Manitoba Métis visited the legion and had their photo taken with the bell.

Bell has been sighted from time to time

In the last 14 years, people have reported seeing it at Métis events, and two Manitobans who said they'd seen the bell gave sworn statements to police.

"I've heard it's in Winnipeg. I've heard it's in a garage in the North End," said Dufault, adding. "I have a pretty good idea who the people that know more ... are."

Dumont, who's a former lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, has always said he doesn't know where the bell is or who has it.

"I hope it's in a garage here someplace in the North End on its way to Batoche, but I don't know. I don't know where it is," he said.

"And if it's a Métis person that has it, I would consider that person a hero, not a criminal. It was removed from someone who was not the rightful owner, from a place where it shouldn't have been."

Ontario has threatened to prosecute

But the rightful ownership is not so clear to other people. In the past, there have been suggestions that Ontario would prosecute whoever has the bell, Métis or not.

Dumont said that possibility will drive the bell's holder further underground, delaying its public display.

It looked like Saskatchewan had negotiated the return of the bell in 2000, but the deal collapsed.

Accounts of the bell describe it as silver-plated, 30 centimetres high and weighing about 12 kilograms.