The Pass System: Segregation in Canada

“Charles Sawphawpahkayo wanted to get married. To do that, the man from a reserve near Duck Lake, Sask. 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, Sawphawpahkayo 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  information presented here comes from viewing the film of the same name directed by Alex Williams, and by borrowing extensively from articles on the internet, particularly  a very extensive one by Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau correspondent for the Toronto Star, as well as on line conversations with Alex Williams. I think that 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.  See the RESOURCES section of our website for a link to the film.

The history of the pass system in Canada is very dark and 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 Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan (1885) as” the Canadian government was concerned resistance could grow out of control if indigenous people began leaving their reserves to join in.”

It 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 the 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 reserve would only be issued at the pleasure of the local Indian Agent, a man who controlled every aspect of First Nations lives, holding judicial powers.

It lasted nearly 60 years without ever going through Parliament.

It 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. The pass system 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 Treaties 4, 6 and 7.
Macdonald acknowledged they were on shaky ground in that requiring passes would violate treaty rights:

pass-161In a letter to Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney on October 28, 1885. Macdonald 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.”  Indian agents were supplied with books of passes, or permits to leave. As you can see from the photo of one of the passes, the time the individual is allowed to be off reserve is recorded, as is the purpose of the time away, and whether or not he is allowed to carry a gun. So the “pass system” was initially applied to “rebel Indians” but later expanded for all First Nations.

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 resulted in produce that rotted. First Nation farmers also were required to have a permit to sell their produce. The pass system additionally enabled the government to attempt 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.

(“You know something is wrong when the cops say don’t do it,” said film Director Williams)

Hayter Reed, who was then in charge of the Indian Affairs department, overruled the Mounties but acknowledged in a letter that year “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 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 they 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 and he suspects many were deliberately destroyed by a government who 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 Affair branch at the department of mines and resources was circulated to Indian agents to put an official end to the pass system, saying 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 siblings — she was the eldest of six — came home from residential school for the summer and their mother took them to the closest town, Punnichy, Sask., 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.

permit-to-sell“They were like a receipt and you had to tell how long you were going away off the reserve and he signed them to give you his permission,” she said.

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 to hire a lawyer to defend themselves.

In addition, Indian Agents in Western Canada were empowered as Justices of the Peace, and so mounting a defence against them would have been difficult. As well, people were not allowed to complain to anyone but the Indian Agent (who was the one implementing the policy) So, in fact the Agency could be the perpetrator, judge and complaints officer all in one.

Why do we need to know this history? The TRC report is entitled: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.” Can you imagine the sense of shame adults, both men and women would feel having to ask permission to go hunting, to go fishing, to go visit their own children? What would this do to the self confidence, the self worth people would feel?  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. We need to support Indigenous people as they break out of it.