Bell of Batoche is bogus, playwright says
BY JONATHAN CHARLTON, THE STARPHOENIX JULY 17, 2013
Robert Winslow admits the “Bell of Frog Lake” doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Bell of Batoche.
But he says there’s overwhelming evidence that the bell set to be unveiled at this year’s Back to Batoche celebration is the wrong one.
Missing since 1885 after the defeat of Louis Riel’s forces, the bell’s return has been called a symbol of healing between the Metis and non-Metis communities.
As the story goes, a trio of Canadian soldiers from Millbrook, Ontario took the church bell home as war booty after taking the town.
The bell was stolen from the Millbrook Legion in 1991, but no charges were ever laid.
According to Winslow, a Millbrook playwright, that’s not the whole story.
He says the bell that became known as the Bell of Batoche was actually taken from Frog Lake when Canadian soldiers were searching for forces loyal to Wandering Spirit and Big Bear.
“The bell was sitting in a wooden cloche, or tower, beside the burnt-out church and they took that bell.”
Winslow started researching the history for a play he wrote in 2000.
“We looked at the 1885 campaign in Batoche, we looked at the Frog Lake area and the resistance there by the First Nations groups that were connected with Riel, and we looked at the soldiers. I did tons of research in Ottawa and out west in different libraries and museums.”
Documents from that period — letters, journals and newspaper articles, as well as debate in Parliament — all refer to it as the Bell of Frog Lake, he said.
One of those sources, a letter to the editor of the local paper, was written by his great-great-grandfather, Charles Winslow — the captain of the soldiers who, unbeknownst to him, took the bell.
“The evidence is overwhelming that it came from Frog Lake,” Robert Winslow says.
This, however, poses two questions — how did the bell get renamed, apparently sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, and where did the Batoche bell end up?
Winslow isn’t sure, but he has a couple of theories.
Around the 1970s, a woman employed by Parks Canada came to Millbrook from Winnipeg, and said the bell was from Batoche. She spoke to Metis leaders in Manitoba, he says.
“I don’t really know whether it was somebody from (that) end or somebody from our end who said, ‘We brought this back when we fought Riel back in Batoche,’ ” Winslow says.
“If it was an identical bell, there you go. And the fact is, that (Batoche) church became a hospital the day after the battle. So there were regiments in and out of there from all over Canada.
“I’m not disputing the bell was taken, but the Millbrook soldiers didn’t even fight at Batoche; they were held at Clark’s Crossing until the day after the battle, and they were on burial duty when they got there.”
The bell ended up in the town’s firehall — a symbol of intense anti-Catholic sentiment. Many people in the Millbrook area were Orangemen, members of a Protestant group with roots in the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Ireland in the 1690s.
“The people that went from this area were still hot under the collar about the killing of Thomas Scott in Winnipeg by Riel’s people. (Scott) was an Orangeman, and they were all Orangemen around here,” Winslow says.
“To bring back something like that would have been the ultimate prize for a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant in Millbrook, to show the Catholic Church, ‘We don’t give a damn about you guys.’ ”
Claire Belanger-Parker, event manager for the Back to Batoche festival, has heard the Frog Lake theory but remains confident the right bell has been recovered.
She said while there were other bells produced around that time, this bell was made specifically for the dioceses.
Also, it has unique flaws in the lettering, she said.
“Because it was done in Spain, there are some markings missing on that bell that were recorded in the church,” she said.
“According to the historical documents, that’s what we found. I’m not a historian, I’m an event manager here at Batoche, but what I’ve seen certainly demonstrates it is the actual bell. If I have to trust the records in that, I would certainly trust the church’s records.”
But the meaning of the bell’s return is more important than the specifics of the story, she says.
“We’ve been waiting for this for 128 years; it’s exciting. Even if I grew up in Eastern Canada, the story of Batoche and the Metis is a part of my history and a part of the history of the country, and it means a lot to a lot of people. (The keeper of the bell) wants to give hope to the youth, wants to give a chance to all the elders to hear the bell, hear the sound of Marie Antoinette.
“He doesn’t want it in a museum, locked away. He wants it to tell the story of the Metis people.”
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Photo by: Lindy Powell