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Conflict, coercion, and settler colonialism in Western Canada

‘The Pass System’ is an important documentary that is a must-watch for teachers, researchers, and activists


Still from The Pass System, a new documentary film directed by Alex Williams.

Starting in the 1880s, the federal government implemented an illegal pass system to restrict Indigenous peoples in Western Canada to small reserves in an effort to try to contain their resistance to colonization. If individuals wished to leave their reserves, for any reason and for any length of time, they were required to obtain written permission from an Indian Agent in the form of a permit or “pass.” If Indigenous peoples did not return to the reserve within the amount of time stipulated on their pass, usually ranging from a day to a few weeks, they could be fined or jailed.

The Pass System, a new documentary film narrated by Tantoo Cardinal and directed by Alex Williams, sheds light on the hidden history of the pass system. Despite having no legal basis, the pass system was enforced by state officials on an ad hoc basis for over 60 years, lasting well in to the 1950s. Enriched by thorough historical research and important oral testimonies from Elders, The Pass System is yet another powerful reminder of Canada’s sordid colonial past. It also highlights the ongoing intergenerational effects of Canada’s assimilative policies that continue to shape relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada today.

The film strongly refutes Canada’s “myth of benevolence”—the belief that the country was created peacefully, without conflict or coercion—by showing how the pass system was devised in direct response to colonial conflict. Ex-Indian Agent Hayter Reed proposed the system in the aftermath of the War of 1885, which saw warriors, led by Louis Riel, do battle with Canadian forces over the expropriation of Indigenous lands. While Riel’s warriors were defeated, Reed, like many government officials, was concerned that new combinations of Indigenous “radicals” might organize to block Canada’s capitalist expansion West with violent resistance. One way to contain this threat to the colonial/capitalist project was to limit the mobility of Indigenous peoples, especially those deemed to be “disloyal,” as a way of preventing oppositional organizing. Restricting Indigenous peoples to their reserves also bolstered initiatives like residential schooling by limiting parent’s ability to travel to free their children from the schools. Moreover, the system hampered Indigenous peoples’ trading relations so that they could not compete economically with whites.

Unlike other coercive measures, such as the Indian Act, the pass system had no legal basis. Reed understood the illegal nature of the system but advocated for its use anyway: “I beg to inform you that there has never been any legal authority for compelling Indians who leave their Reserves to return to them, but it has always been felt that it would be a great mistake in this matter to stand too strictly on the letter of the law.” The North West Mounted Police, the very symbol of colonial coercion in Canada, at first objected to enforcing the illegal system; however, they were overruled by high-ranking officials in the Department of Indian Affairs. Even Prime Minister John A. Macdonald assented to the system’s illegal operation.

The Pass System is an important documentary that is a must-watch for teachers, researchers, and activists of all kinds. In light of the Idle No More movement and ongoing pipeline protests, the film reminds us of the different ways in which the state, in the name of nation-building, tries to contain Indigenous resistance to facilitate capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession.

Watch the film’s official trailer here.

Sean Carleton writes “The Popular Front” column on popular culture for Canadian Dimension and he lives in Peterborough, ON, Anishinaabe Territory.


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