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The Pass System: Segregation in Canada
Revised June 2020
(The information presented here comes from viewing the film of the same name directed by Alex Williams, as well as online transcripts of his interviews. We are indebted to Williams for five years of research before he produced his film, and he could not have done so without the oral history of a number of Indigenous persons. We also borrowed extensively from articles on the internet, particularly a comprehensive one by Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau correspondent for the Toronto Star.)
Joanna Smith tells the story of Charles Sawphawpahkayo: he wanted to get married, and in order “to do that, the man from a reserve near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan (now known as Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation), would need to travel to the bigger town of Battleford, about 140 kilometres away as the crow flies. Before he could leave, however, Charles would need the written authorization of the local Indian agent, who signed the required permission slip—issued by the Department of Indian Affairs — on June 3, 1897. The agent granted him 10 days away from the reserve.”
This is an example of the Pass System in Canada.
The history of the Pass System in Canada is very dark, shrouded in mystery and will require a great deal more research. But there are several elements beyond dispute.
Smith states that the system was first implemented as an emergency measure — designed to be temporary — in response to the North-West Rebellion led by Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion in Saskatchewan (1885), since “the Canadian government was concerned resistance could grow out of control if Indigenous people began leaving their reserves to join in.”
The system was formalized after 1885 at the suggestion of then Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hayter Reed, and approved by his superior Edgar Dewdney, in a document entitled, “Memorandum to the honourable Indian Commissioner for the Future Management of Indians.” Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s response was that “…it is in the highest degree desirable to adopt it.” He then signed an internal order that became an unofficial policy of Indian Affairs. Henceforth, a pass to get off the reserve would only be issued at the pleasure of the local Indian Agent, a man who held the judicial power to control every aspect of First Nations’ lives.
It lasted nearly 60 years without ever going through Parliament.
The Pass System is one example of policies and practices that were often arbitrarily applied by Indian Agents. What’s particularly suspicious about the Pass System is how light the surviving documentation is, considering its powerful and illegal control of people. It had no basis in law, but the system nonetheless lasted over six decades. Although not without exception, it appears to have been applied primarily in Treaty areas 4, 6 and 7 (on the Prairies and mainly in Alberta).
Macdonald acknowledged that they were on shaky ground, since requiring passes would violate treaty rights. In a letter to Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney on October 28, 1885, he wrote: “…should resistance be offered on the ground of Treaty rights, the obtaining of a pass should not be insisted upon as regards loyal Indians.” As you can see from the photo above, the passes recorded the time the individual was allowed to be off reserve, the purpose of the time away, and whether or not they were allowed to carry a gun. So the Pass System was initially applied to “rebel Indians,” but later expanded to all First Nations people.
In order to obtain a pass, individuals would often have to travel many days by foot to the Agent’s house, not knowing if he would be there when they arrived. If the Agent was away, they would either camp and wait, or return home. If the need to leave the reserve was pressing, such as to sell market-ready produce, the delay usually resulted in produce that rotted. First Nation farmers were also required to have a permit to sell their produce in the first place. Furthermore, the Pass System enabled the government’s attempts to quash potlatches, the Sun Dance and other cultural practices.
The North-West Mounted Police was the only agency that protested the system. In 1893, Commissioner Lawrence William Herchmer ordered members of the force to stop returning people without passes to the reserves. As film director Williams said, “You know something is wrong when the cops say don’t do it.”
Hayter Reed, who was then in charge of the Indian Affairs department, overruled the Mounties but acknowledged in a letter that “there has never been any legal authority for compelling Indians who leave their Reserves to return to them.” Later, he also wrote, “all we can do is to endeavour to keep the true position from the Indians as long as possible.”
The system remained in effect until 1941 and was formally repealed in 1951. Oral history also records stories told by First Nations people who either experienced the pass system themselves, or remember relatives talking about it.
As reported by Smith, one powerful testimony comes from Elder Therese Seesequasis, of Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation, who recalls spending 10 months of the year away from her family at a residential school.
“We sure spent some lonely, lonely days . . . Our parents didn’t even come for Christmas,” Seesequasis says.
Smith points out that “the Pass System helped support the residential school system[,] as Indian agents would often refuse to sign passes if they suspected [the passes] would be used to visit children there.”
Winona Wheeler, an historian and professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said in an interview with Smith that oral history is crucial to understanding what happened.
“I think without hearing those stories, a lot of stuff has been glossed over or hidden or has not surfaced in the public realm, because documents go missing or documents have not been made accessible in the archives,” says Wheeler, who drew a parallel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission having to fight the government for access to archives on residential schools. Williams said only two actual passes exist at Library and Archives Canada; he suspects that many were deliberately destroyed by a government that knew what it was doing was illegal. There is also one at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and two in the Saskatchewan Archives.
A letter dated July 11, 1941 by Harold McGill, who was director of the Indian Affairs branch at the Department of Mines and Resources, was circulated to Indian agents in order to put an official end to the Pass System. It said there was no law compelling First Nations people to stay on their reserves and that they were “free to come and go” like everyone else.
McGill mentions government lawyers having come to that conclusion in 1900 — for which Williams could find no documentation — and also makes a request: “If you have any such forms in your possession[,] kindly return them to the Department where they will be destroyed.”
Smith records the story of Leona Blondeau, 82, who “was 8 years old when the extralegal federal government policy was officially revoked in 1941, but she and other living witnesses to history recall restrictions on their movements lasting until at least her teenage years.”
“We never went anywhere. We stayed on the reserve. We were very segregated . . . It was the way life was, I thought. I didn’t realize that wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Blondeau.
She remembers being 14 years old when she and her five younger siblings came home from a residential school for the summer and their mother took them to the closest town, Punnichy, Saskatchewan, for the day.
“We travelled by wagon and horse and go there and our treat was an ice cream cone. That was our treat for the day,” Blondeau recalled.
She says her mother had to get permission from the local Indian agent before she could create those memories with her children.
Blondeau remembers a happy childhood spent close to her family, but says that as she grew older, she became angry and resentful at how limited her life and future appeared.
Why didn’t the First Nations people complain, you might ask? Until 1951, First Nations people were denied the right to counsel; the Indian Act prohibited people from hiring a lawyer to defend themselves.
In addition, Indian Agents in Western Canada were empowered as Justices of the Peace, so mounting a defence against them would have been difficult, even with legal support. People were also not allowed to complain to anyone other than the Indian Agent, who was the one implementing the policy. Therefore, the Agent could be the perpetrator, judge and complaints officer all in one.
“The pass system has had lasting effects on generations of Indigenous people. Over half a century of segregation and restrictions on mobility contributed to the loss of culture, strained family relations, caused feelings of distrust towards the government and police, and brought about socioeconomic inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities (as well as between reserve and off-reserve communities).”1 One can only imagine the sense of shame that adults, both men and women, would feel when having to ask permission to go hunting, to go fishing, or to go visit their own children. What did this do to the self confidence and self worth people felt? Furthermore, this control of Indigenous people, in their movements, in their rituals, in their farming and hunting and even in their visits to their children, without question helped create an intergenerational sense of dependency.