New documentary explores dark legacy of government pass system on First Nations reserves
- Fraser Needham | November 20, 2015
It was an illegal practice, an assault on human rights and yet another example of the Canadian government’s mistreatment of Indigenous people.
A new documentary film explores the dark legacy of the “pass system” which was used by the government for more than six decades to restrict the movement of First Nations people off their home reserves.
Under such a system, Indigenous people could be required to get a pass from the local Indian agent for something as simple as attending a wedding a few miles away.
A system of passes and permits was also used by government officials to create economic hardship on First Nations people by controlling when and to who they could sell their grain and livestock to. The pass system controlled mobility: people being able to leave reserve. The permit system controlled people's ability to sell agricultural products.
The pass system was first imposed on Indigenous people by the government of Sir John A. MacDonald after the Riel Rebellion in 1885 although it has been historically proven First Nations people played very little role in the uprising.
It was never officially passed into legislation but was widely used by Indian agents to oppressively control the lives of Indigenous people.
On more than once occasion, RCMP officers complained to government that they were breaking the law by enforcing the pass system but their concerns were largely ignored.
“The Pass System” is produced by documentary filmmaker Alex Williams with support from arts councils and in association with Tamarack Productions.
He says the system was just one of a number methods the government used to dominate the lives of First Nations people which also included the Indian Act and permit system.
“They were controlling people in different ways and controlling travel in different ways,” Williams says. “So, again, if it quacks like a duck, basically, it’s still control.”
As part of making the documentary, Williams did extensive research, which took him throughout Saskatchewan and other provinces to universities and other government archives in search of documentation of the pass system.
He says records were often hard to come by but he did manage to find a 1941 letter from then head of Indian Affairs Harold McGill to Indian agents telling them to stop using the pass system.
Retired RCMP officer Jacob Pete of the Little Pine First Nation has helped Williams with his research and is one of the people featured in the documentary.
He says he hopes the documentary draws attention to the non-Aboriginal public of this little known dark practice of the Canadian government.
“My grandfather had to live through this thing, my father lived through that thing, I lived through the permit system when I was a young man,” Peete says. “I always said those things are wrong, they can’t be right.”
Pete also says he is not surprised that records and documentation of the pass system are hard to find.
Since the system was never passed into legislation and therefore effectively illegal, he says Indian agents were often told to destroy documentation when an office closed.
For more information about “The Pass System,” go to the documentary’s website.
Nov 30 - Station 20 West, 7 PM
Dec 2 - The Broadway Theatre, 7 PM
Other upcoming showings:
Gordon's Nov 23, 2 PM
Fort Qu'Appelle, Nov 25, Burt Fox High School, 1:15 PM
Regina - Nov 25, University of Regina Education Auditorium, in association with MISPON, 7 PM
Regina, Nov 25, Saskatchewan Polytechnic, 2 PM (for students and teachers)