Pass system (Canadian history)

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The pass system was an unlawful,[1] informal Canadian administrative policy, never codified in the Indian Act or enacted as law, which intended to keep First Nations in Canada separated from settlers and confined to Indian reserves, unless they had been issued a special travel permit, called a pass issued by a government official known as an Indian Agent.[2] It was introduced in 1885, at the time of the North-West Rebellion, and remained in force for 60 years. Any First Nation person caught outside their reservation without a pass issued by an Indian agent was returned to their reservation or imprisoned.[3]

Objections to the policy were raised by the North-West Mounted Police in 1893, and its commissioner William Herchmer ordered the officers to cease returning First Nations individuals to reserves.[3] He was overruled by the federal Indian Affairs commissioner Hayter Reed.[3]

The policy is the subject of a 2015 documentary film, The Pass System.[4]


Prior to the Pass System being implemented in Canada, some key events and issues led the Canadian Government to follow this policy of issuing passes and permits to First Nations members who were seeking to leave their reserve. The four primary factors were the settlement of the Prairie provinces, the building of the railway to the West, the North-West Rebellion, and the perceived competition between white settlers and Indian farmers and ranchers. Both Government bureaucrats and politicians felt[citation needed] that in order for the West to be settled it was necessary to restrict the movement of its indigenous peoples. First Nations members would be affected by this policy of restricting their movement for 50–60 years. The policy's effects included the inability to conduct trade and commerce, not being able to attend cultural and social gatherings with neighboring Reserves, and isolation from Canadian society. The Federal Government, settlers, and industry leaders felt that it was necessary to implement the Pass and Permit System. The Federal Government felt the need to ensure safe passage for new settlers and immigrants who were coming West. For Industry leaders, there was concern[clarification needed] about the image First Nations members had on communities around the Reserves. Finally, both the bison herds and the migrations of indigenous peoples posed a problem[citation needed] for the builders of railways.

Even prior to Confederation, settlement of the West became very important to Canadian leaders. On 11 July 1856 Sir John A. Macdonald wrote to the Provincial Secretary in Toronto in a letter stating in part, "2nd As to the mode of managing the Indian property so as to secure its full benefit to the Indians without impeding the settlement of the country".[5] Here in the letter there is indication that the settlement of the country is of greater importance than the interests of First Nations peoples. In August 1885 Macdonald began talking about the Pass System for First Nations members. This came about because of the North-West Rebellion. He told Lawrence Vankoughnet, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, "As to the disloyal bands this [Pass System] should be carried out in consequence of their disloyalty. The system should be introduced in the loyal Bands as well and the advantage of the change pressed upon them. But no punishment for breaking bounds could be inflicted and in case of resistance on the grounds of Treaty right should not be insisted upon". He said this because he was exasperated by the North-West Rebellion. It should also be noted that Macdonald was aware that the measure not only violated Treaty but he did give Treaty deference when dealing with the policy of he Pass System.[6] Another reason Macdonald may have taken into consideration is that the Pass System could not pass the test of Treaty rights, the only way the policy could be accomplished was through the powers that Indian agents had over First Nations members. Indian agents had similar powers as police when it came to things like what was deemed for public safety.

The North-West Rebellion brought security concerns for the Canadian Government. The Rebellion started on March 18, 1885. Louis Riel, the Metis leader, ceased the Indian agent and other officials. The Rebellion was because of outstanding grievances Riel had with the Canadian government. The Indians joined the rebellion because[citation needed] in 1884 the Federal Government had stopped or banned the sale or giving of ammunition and ball cartridges to First Nations members in the Manitoba and Northwest Territories, even though this was contrary to treaty agreements. There were fears[by whom?] that Indians would start attacking and killing settlers on the Prairies. Hayter Reed, the Indian agent for the Saskatchewan region, asked Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to restrict the movement of Indians. He stressed to the Prime Minister that the security and well-being of the country and the white settlers was at risk. On March 26, 1885, the Superintendent of the North West Mounted Police attempted to seize what he considered an important supply point. As a result of this confrontation in the Rebellion, 12 men of the NWMP were dead and 11 were wounded. Five Metis and 1 Cree were also killed in the battle.[7] Though Riel would be tried, found guilty of insurrection, and eventually hanged, the incident created fear among the white settlers and government officials. In the minds of government officials Indians had to be contained, even for the good of the Indians themselves.[citation needed]

It was prior to the North-West Rebellion that Edgar Dewdney came to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He served from 1879 to 1888 in the post as Commissioner. After David Laird resigned in 1879, Macdonald approached Dewdney and offered him the position of Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Dewdney did not like the idea of leaving his post as MP, but he found it difficult[citation needed] to refuse the Prime Minister's offer. After all the Prime Minister told him he was just the person he was looking for. Those characteristics were "firmness and tact, mature judgement and experience, and "knowledge of the Indian character" for the job".[8] During his visit to the Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 he observed that the First Nations people had done a decent job of producing crops but he noticed they were working with inferior or substandard equipment. Even the rations Indians were getting Dewdney complained as being not enough. But Dewdney in his official undertaking as Commissioner met with many Chiefs to try and rectify the concerns First Nations peoples had with the way treaty entitlements and obligations were being met. Dewdney's goal had been to get Indians onto reserves. Along with many of his administrative duties, he hired Hayter Reed as his Assistant Commissioner.[9]

In July 1885, Dewdney asked Reed to draft policies that would help in restricting and confining Indians.[citation needed] This proposed implementation of policy of managing Indians was[citation needed] the result of the North-West Rebellion. At issue was the need to punish those Indians who been disloyal to the Crown. Even as the Assistant Commissioner, Reed had always thought[citation needed] it was necessary to deal with the Indians with harsh measures. The report was sent by Dewdney on August 1, 1885, and Macdonald and Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Vankoughnet[10] made revisions and refinements to it. This is where the Pass System would emerge. The policy that emerged was never part of law. Vankoughnet went on to remark, "The status of the Indians in Canada is that of a minor with the Government as the guardian" and in the book it says that "[h]is remarks represent the quintessential statement of federal government policy in the early period, 1873-1912".[11]

In 1888 Dewdney resigned as the governor of the North-West Territories and as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dewdney recommended that Reed be appointed as the new Commissioner. From the very start of his administration Reed delivered the department's policy of "protection, civilization, and assimilation". He stated that' "If the Indian is to become a source of profit to the country, it is clear that he must be amalgamated with the white population".[12] After he became Commissioner, the North West Mounted Police would object to the returning of First Nations members who did not possess a pass or permit back to Reserves. Commissioner Lawrence William Herchmer, North-West Mounted Police ordered members of the Force to stop this practice as it was not entrenched in law. However, Reed overruled Herchmer and wrote a letter to him on June 15, 1893. In the letter Reed states, "I beg to inform you that there has never been any legal authority for compelling Indians who leave their Reserve to return to them, but it has always been felt that it would be a great mistake for this matter to stand too strictly in the letter of the law".[13]

However, the greatest impact for the policy for restricting movement for First Nations people would be the incoming Liberal Government of Wilfrid Laurier in 1886. Laurier put in place Clifford Sifton as Minister of the Interior. From that point on the settlement of the West took a turning point. During this time the world was experiencing a surge in the economy and this gave Sifton greater reason to bring Canadian and American farmers to the Prairies. He felt that these farmers were best suited and more desirable as the new settlers. Europeans he felt were not suitable because they did not like the hard work and they were likely to give up on farming.[14] Further, Sifton had little simply for First Nations as he made plans to settle the West. Sifton "left Indian policy in the hands of an "Indians Affairs" bureaucracy with little sympathy for the aspirations of First Nations".[15] The major concern for Sifton was the settlement of the West. The Laurier Government and Cabinet told Sifton that a railroad to the West was not possible. The Liberal Government of the day told him "No money, no Railways, no settlement of the West". Sifton saw that the only way the settlement of West was possible was through the building of the railway. He knew that the construction of the rail system had to be paid by the Canadian government. But the Liberal government said this was not possible, they had accepted the railway was out of the question. But Sifton would not give up and he saw his chance when the Americans said they would attempt to build a railroad into British Columbia. With the Liberals not wanting the Americans to come into B.C. the government agreed to build a railroad through the Crow's Nest Pass.[16]

Experiences of First Nations with the Pass System[edit]

The Pass System brought many difficult experiences for First Nations. Even though Commissioner Herchmer had been willing to follow the policy when it came to returning Indians back to Reserves other officials were strict in applying the policy for the pass system. Indians would be charged under the Vagrancy Act if they did not possess a pass or permit. The North West Mounted Police Superintendent McIlree in Calgary had his officers return people who from Sarcee (Tsuu T'ina) back to the reserve whether Indians had a pass or no pass. Many officers knew that First Nations members were not in a position to pursue any legal matter to court.[17] Also, as First Nations members were being moved to Reserves, many of these members became farmers and ranchers but over time they came to be seen as competition by the non-indigenous farmers and ranchers. The First Nations farmers and ranchers became victims of their own success. The North West Mounted Police had preferred to buy hay from Treaty Seven ranchers. The NWMP considered the hay from the indigenous ranchers superior feed for NWMP horses. Non-indigenous farmers, also, held the belief that First Nations farmers were being given handouts for farming and ranching and that this was the cause, in their view, of the unfair competition by the Indian farmers and ranchers. Therefore, this became one of the reasons First Nations were required to have the pass system imposed on them.[18]

Even their cultural ceremonies, hunting, and commerce would be affected by the pass system. Even First Nations members visiting other Reserves had to have a pass. The Reserves could be in close proximity it did not matter. Indians still had to get a pass from the Indian agent. Cecile Many Guns from Brocket, Alberta in 1973 told of two men visiting from another close by reserve and they had had no permit. The police came and retrieved them, they were forced to sleep on a stone floor for the night and next day the two men were returned to where they came from. She indicated in her interview with Dila Provost and Albert Yellowhorn that incidents where Indians were treated with little dignity caused suspicion with white people.[19] Victoria McHugh recalls that even going from Siksika to Tsuu T'ina people were only allowed a maximum of 5 days to visit and return to Siksika. Bill McLean mentioned[where?] that the missionaries with the help of the NWMP and government officials tried to stop the Sun Dance and condemn the ceremony. Sun Dances previously allowed First Nations from various groups to travel from community to community. The pass system did not allow for this inter-community travel.[citation needed] Elva Lefthand said that hunting became more restrictive under the pass system.[20] In Treaty 6 John Tootoosis talked about speaking for a group of First Nations farmers who had given in the 1920s and quoting another activist, Reverend Edward Ahenakew, "for myself I would rather starve than go beg for such a trifling thing as a permit to sell one load of hay."[21]

Those who were considered sympathetic[to whom?] were overruled by either their tribal superiors or the government. Commissioner of NWMP Herchmer was overruled by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hayter Reed.[citation needed] Commissioner Dewdney was criticized by the Liberal Government of Wilfrid Laurier that Dewdney was the cause of the unrest among the First Nations which in turn caused the North-West Rebellion. Dewdney was accused of being too generous to the Natives because he did change measures to increase rations and to meet with various groups to inquire about the treatment First Nation peoples were getting from government officials. There is some suggestion that the indigenous groups took advantage of the situation by asking for more supplies.[22] In the 1890s Indian farmers protested the new policy (the pass system) and many Indian agents and farmer instructors took side with the Indians. As a result, they were fired for their efforts to bring to light First Nations were being required to get a permit to sell rain and other farm products. The First Nations people said that the pass system would be enforce until the 1950s.[23]

The obscurity of the pass system was brought to light by an article that appeared on Toronto Star written and edited by Joanna Smith. In the article it stated, "The federal government said that some records of the pass system-the apartheid-like policy that forbade First Nations from leaving their reserves without written permission-were destroyed before anyone knew of their historical value".[24] Even among First Nations and Canadian society today very little is known about the pass system and the policies surrounding its implementation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'The Pass System' explores dark chapter in Canadian history | Toronto Star". Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  2. ^ Sarah Carter Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900 1999 0802079954 "The pass system was never a law; it was never codified in the Indian Act, and it can only be described as a 'policy.' From the time of the earliest discussions about such a system, there was recognition among officials that it ran directly counter to the treaties and had no validity in law. Official rationales advanced for maintaining the system after 1885 were that Indians had to be kept separate from the rest of society for their own good, as contact tended to be injurious to them."
  3. ^ a b c Cram, Stephanie (2016-02-19). "Dark history of Canada's First Nations pass system uncovered in documentary". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2016-02-20.
  4. ^ Benjoe, Kerry (November 26, 2015). "First Nation reserves prior to 1960s were 'open-air prisons,' says Saskatoon filmmaker behind The Pass System". Leader-Post. Postmedia Network. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  5. ^ J. K. Johnson. The Papers of the Prime Ministers Volume 1 The letters of Sir John A. Macdonald 1836-1857 Ottawa. Queen's Printers and Controller of Stationary, Public Archives of Canada. 1968. p. 365.
  6. ^ D.J. Hall. From Treaties To Reserves The Federal Government and Native Peoples in Territorial Alberta, 1870-1905. Montreal. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2015. p. 301.
  7. ^ Olive Patricia Dickason; William Newbigging (2015). A Concise History of Canada's First Nations (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 207–209.
  8. ^ Brian Titley. "The Indian Commissioners. p. 66.
  9. ^ Titley, Brian. The Indian Commissioners Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada's West, 1873-1932. Edmonton. University of Alberta Press. 2009. pp.63-120.
  10. ^ Shewell, Hugh. The Guiding Philosophy and Organization of the Department of Indian Affairs. "Enough To Keep Them Alive" Indian Welfare in Canada, 1873-1965. Toronto. University of Toronto. 2004. p. 36.
  11. ^ Hugh Shewell. Enough To Keep Them Alive p.36.
  12. ^ Brian Titley. The Indian Commissioners. p.101.
  13. ^ Stephanie Cram (2016-02-19). "Dark History of Canada's First Nations pass system uncovered in documentary". CBC News.
  14. ^ Gregory P. Marchildon. Immigration & Settlement, 1870-1939 History of the Prairies West Series. Regina. University of Regina Press. 2009. p. 33.
  15. ^ Marchildon. Immigration & Settlement, 1870-1939. p. 4.
  16. ^ Stevens, G.R.. History of the CN Canadian National Railways New York. Collier-Macmillan Publishers. 1973. p. 169.
  17. ^ Hall, D.J.. From Treaties To Reserves The Federal Government and Native Peoples in Territorial Alberta, 1870-1905 Montreal. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2015. p.302.
  18. ^ Francis, Douglas R.. & Chris Kitzan. "We Must Farm To Enable Us To Live": The Plains Cree And Agriculture To 1900. The Prairie West As Promised Land Calgary. University of Calgary Press. 2007. p. 117-119.
  19. ^ Smith Keith D.. Stranger Visitors Documents in Indigenous-Settler Relations in Canada from 1876. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 2014. p. 46.
  20. ^ Hildebrandt, Walter, Sarah Carter, & Dorothy First Rider. The True Spirit And Original Intent of Treaty 7 Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council Montreal. McGill-Queen's University Press. 1996. p.152-153.
  21. ^ Helen Buckley (1992). From Wooden Plow To Welfare: Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces. Montreal: McGill–Queen's University Press. pp. 57–58.
  22. ^ Titley, The Indian Commissioners p.78-81.
  23. ^ Buckley. From Wooden Ploughs To Welfare. p.53-54.
  24. ^ Smith, Joanna. Filmmaker digs into Prairies pass system. Toronto Star April 10, 2016.