The Indian Act, Farming, and the Permit System – Annotated Bibliography

By Rhys Groen

Written in 2021 for the University of Ottawa course HIS 4135 – The Indian Act, for Prof. Daniel Rück, edited by Daniel Rück and Sam Yee

In the late 19th and 20th century, government officials recognised that agriculture on Indigenous reserves was largely a failure. However, those same officials failed to account for why agriculture was unsuccessful. The usual explanation at the time was that Indigenous people were either too lazy to farm or that they rejected agriculture altogether because of some deep rooted and illogical disdain for it. These racist notions held sway in settler studies about Indigenous agriculture until the end of the 20th century. The collection of sources below have been collected to present a newer and more accurate narrative of why agriculture failed on Indigenous reserves, and how it was in many cases intentionally disrupted by the Department of Indian Affairs and its successors.

Many treaties between Indigenous people and the Crown promised Indigenous people that they would be provided with a way to sustain themselves through agriculture. This promise was largely not kept by the government of Canada. The first barrier to agriculture on reserve was the reserve itself, which in many instances was located on land which was unsuitable to farming. This poor farmland inhibited Indigenous people’s ability to farm, and that inability to farm was later used as justification to further limit the sizes of reserves since the land was supposedly not being adequately used. Despite these and other barriers, Indigenous farmers on certain reserves realized some success in the 1880s. What really halted this prospective industry for Indigenous people was the imposition of the Pass and Permit systems.

There has been relatively little academic work written recently on agriculture and the Indian Act, particularly of the Permit System, which worked in conjunction with the Pass System to limit the activities open to Indigenous people on reserve, particularly in the prairies. In the same way that the Pass System worked to limit the physical movement of Indigenous people by restricting them to their reserves, the Permit System worked to limit the economic activities of Indigenous people. This Permit System was in part implemented because of the surprising success at which Indigenous People in Saskatchewan had in the late 19th century at agriculture, which at times out-competed white settlers. For further information on the Pass System, please watch the documentary of the same name by Alex Williams. While this documentary is not directly related to Indigenous agriculture, the Pass System and the Permit System were two policies which worked hand in hand to limit the rights and ways Indigenous people on reserve could live. Without the Pass System, the Permit System would not have been nearly as detrimental.

Of crucial importance to this narrative of Indigenous agriculture is the Permit System. This was a system put in place by an Act to Amend “The Indian Act, 1880” which prohibited the sale of agricultural products grown on reserves except in accordance with the government regulations. This forced First Nations farmers to receive a permit if they wanted to sell any agricultural products such as grain, hay, produce, or farm animals. The permit system is explained in depth within two relatively short blog posts cited below, one by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, and the other by Living Sky School Division. These two short blog posts serve as a brief introduction into readings on agriculture and the permit system. For further readings on this subject, please read Rebecca Bateman’s “Talking with the Plow,” or Sarah Carter’s “Lost Harvests.” Carter’s work on this subject provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of agricultural policy in the prairies and represents a turning point in the narrative of Indigenous agriculture. For a less academic approach to the Permit System, please look at the short story “Peggy” by David A. Robertson which can be found in the anthology, This Place: 150 Years Retold. In this text, the Permit System plays an important role in the story and is a good example of the ways in which the harm caused by the Permit System played out.

There are a few additional readings which do not centre agriculture, but deal instead with the history of labour in Canada and the relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers. The first is David Camfield’s Settler Colonialism and Labour Studies in Canada: A Preliminary Exploration which details and explains what settler colonialism is, and how it effects labour studies in Canada. This is a beneficial text as it delves into how settler colonialism infiltrates into every aspect of study and how these fields can be decolonized. The focus on labour studies in particular is important as it relates this text back to agricultural labour. The other is John Lutz’s Makúk: a New History of Aboriginal-White Relations, which presents a new history of Indigenous-white relations through a lens of labour. This is applicable to various branches of the economy, but also includes sections detailing agriculture. It does an excellent job of breaking down certain stereotypes which are still held by some today, and it how these shaped the minds of many policy makers historically as they implemented the various restrictive policies around agriculture.

I hope that this list of sources below will highlight an aspect of Canadian, and Indigenous, history which is often left uncovered. Through a reading of these sources an explanation of certain pervasive and harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people will be discovered and disproved. The intentional disruption of Indigenous agriculture by the Canadian State is a subject which often goes overlooked within both studies of Indigenous history and Canadian history more broadly, though this is of central importance to understanding many of the systemic injustices which still face Indigenous communities today.

Annotated Bibliography

Bateman, Rebecca. “Talking with the Plow: Agricultural Policy and Indian Farming in the Canadian and U.S. Praries” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XVI, 2(1996):211-228.

This article examines the agricultural policy imposed on Indigenous people by the United States and Canada in each country’s Prairie region. Bateman argues that preconceived notions held by lawmakers in both countries impeded the advancement of agriculture among Plains people, this view is opposed to certain other arguments which propose that the advancement of Indigenous agriculture failed due to some inherent shortcoming in either their ability or willingness to farm. This is done through a comparison of Canadian and U.S. Indian Policy in the late 19th century and how it contrasted to the willingness of Indigenous peoples to adapt to these aspects of farming. Bateman describes how agents in both countries consistently looked for reasons to blame Indigenous peoples for their failings at farming instead of analyzing the failure of the policy put in place.

This article is well argued and uses secondary sources to trace the development of agricultural policy in the United States and Canada with regards to how Indigenous people could farm. However, there are scarcely any citations of primary sources which would benefit this paper immensely. An analysis of primary sources of agricultural policy, or further elaboration on quotes from Indigenous peoples on the Plains in response to these policies would likewise be beneficial. Overall, this article builds off of the work of previous historians while failing to add new primary documents to the discussion which could develop the argument further.

Camfield, David. “Settler Colonialism and Labour Studies in Canada: A Preliminary Exploration.” Labour / Le Travail 83 (2019): 147-72.

This article discusses the lack of current research around Canadian settler-colonialism and labour studies and largely works as an introduction into further research around the ways that settler-colonialism can be used as a lens through which to view labour-studies. Camfield argues that it is important to understand Canada as a settler-colonial society and then offers some preliminary ways of integrating analysis of settler colonialism into research around labour history and labour studies. As such this articel introduces the reader to the concept of Canada as being a settler-colonial society, describing the history of how this came about and how it still effects contemporary Canadian society. The argument then logically follows that to study labour history in Canada, an analysis of settler-colonialism must also be present, in two primary ways. First, Indigenous labourers who have been excluded from labour history in many ways should be centered, and second, that the non-indigenous working class has been shaped by settler-colonialism, and thus must be understood as such.

This article works well as an introduction into the understanding of settler-colonialism and does an adequate job of tracing its trajectory, and this is done by re-presenting the work of previous anti-colonial scholars, although in a new context which centers labour. However, as this text is an introduction to the concept of settler-colonialism, it adds little to the scholarly debate around it and instead serves as a jumping-off point for future scholars of labour in Canada to do further research.

Carter, Sarah A. “Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy.” Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.

This text is intended to work against traditional narratives held at the time of how and why farming was not successful in Indigenous communities in the prairies. The widely held view at the time was that the reason why farming did not take off was due to a hostility to farming held by Indigenous people themselves. In this view, Indian Affairs did its upmost to ensure the success of Indigenous people. Carter’s book rejects this view and instead argues that many Indigenous people on reserve initially responded positively to agriculture. This initial inclination to agriculture did not result in any real successes, and Carter explains this was the fault of government policies which aggravated the conditions of Indigenous farmers, and made them unable to compete with their white counterparts who did not have these restrictions.

This text is incredibly useful and is perhaps the most extensive text on Indigenous agriculture in the Canadian prairies. This text presents a break from previous scholarship which suggested that agriculture failed on reserve because of Indigenous people’s refusal to take it up, and instead explains the causes for this as a failure of government policy. However, this text is quite dated now, being more than 30 years old, and as such this work could be expanded upon building on newer research as well. Though, disappointingly, there is a lack of recent scholarship on this topic.

Robertson, David A. “Peggy” in This Place: 150 Years Retold. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Highwater, 2019.

This short story is about Francis Pegahmagabow, or Peggy, the most decorated North American Sniper of World War I. Without detailing too much of the plot of this story, Peggy shows how the achievements of Indigenous people went unrecognised by the Canadian State. The story of Peggy also deals with the Permit System, and as such can be used as a sort of primary text to view how the policy of the Permit System altered and disrupted the lives of Indigenous people.

This text is different from the others listed here since it is short and can be read in less than 30 minutes, taking the form of a graphic novel. As such it is able to ground discussions of the Permit System and other injustices in reality through images. Additionally, as the Permit System and agriculture do not take centre stage in this text, other aspects of Indigenous history are discussed, broadening the scope of understanding.

Flanagan, Tom, Christopher Alcantara, and André Le Dressay. “Customary Land Rights on Canadian Indian Reserves.” In Beyond the Indian Act, 73–. MQUP, 2010.

This chapter discusses the emergence of customary rights, the range of their formalization, and their treatment by the Canadian courts through a conceptual survey of traditional allotments on Canadian Indian reserves. This is done through an analysis of the admittedly scant quantity of literature and case law on the topic, particularly relying on the fieldwork of various anthropologists. In short, this paper discusses the laws around the allotment of land on Indigenous reserves. It is then argued that customary land rights are the least economically efficient property rights system available to Indigenous peoples in Canada. While criticizing the poor choice of property rights system used by Indigenous peoples on reserve, Flanagan neglects to include a history about how this system came about, opting to instead analyze it as it exists in the present without understanding the context for how it emerged.

Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. Blog, “Indian Act and the Permit System”, June 10, 2015, Accessed July 8, 2021,

This website is part of a series of blog posts by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., an organization created to provide non-indigenous people with training to “work effectively with Indigenous Peoples” through teaching people about Indigenous history and contemporary issues. This post is about how the Indian Act and the Permit System worked together to limit the ability of Indigenous peoples to farm effectively on reserve. This post argues that these two policies worked in conjunction to limit the abilities of Indigenous people to farm effectively. While this is a blog post on a public website and as such does not hold extensive academic research on the topic, nor does it build on previous research, it still uses academic sources to support its information. The purpose behind this article is to teach and educate the public, and is thus constructed to be shorter and easier to digest than academic articles.

Living Sky School Division. “First Nations Farming”, Treaty 6 Education, Accessed July 6, 2021,

This website post was created by the Living Sky School Division, a part of the Treaty 6 Education system. This page discusses the practices of Indigenous agriculture and how they had been restricted due to policies put in place by the Canadian Federal government, particularly the Pass and the Permit systems. It argues that First Nations were just as successful, and at times more successful, at farming than non-indigenous people, and that it was the introduction of government policy which failed the First Nations treaty rights to pursue agriculture.

This website is intended to serve as a collection of posts presenting information for the use of teachers in the Treaty 6 Education system. The argument is supported through the citation of various sources, though the sources used are not cited properly and as such cannot be used to search whether or not the depictions of them are accurate. Though this is still a useful source, particularly for the reading of the public as it presents an often-untold part of Canadian history, which is that of Indigenous farming from an Indigenous perspective.

Lutz, John S. “Makúk: a New History of Aboriginal-White Relations.” Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

Makúk is a Mowachaht word meaning, “let’s trade,” which characterised the early relationship between white settlers and the Mowachaht of present-day British Colombia. This book attempts to tell a new history of Indigenous-White relations with a particular focus on the present day Canadian West Coast. It focuses on a tale of exchanges between these two people groups. Of particular importance for this collection of readings is the emphasis placed on the nature of work-for-pay exchange between Indigenous People and European settlers. It is additionally presented that there were different conceptions of what constituted productive time. To European settlers, the view of productive labour was one which produced goods or services. They attempted to impose this view on Indigenous people. In contrast, many Indigenous societies valued “leisure time” which contrasted with this notion of productive labour.

The goal of this text is to reverse the narrative of Indigenous people being separate from the early capitalist economy of the emerging state of Canada. It instead posits that the labour of Indigenous people was essential to that early formation of capitalist economics.

Nickels, Bret. “A Field of Dreams: The Story of the Manitoba Indian Agricultural Program.” Doctoral Thesis, University of Manitoba, 2003.

In this dissertation, Nickels outlines the history of the now defunct Manitoba Indian Agricultural Program (MIAP) and the insights an analysis of this program can provide on the problems and prospects of First Nations agriculture in general. This is done through a presentation of the historical background of First Nations’ agriculture in Manitoba as well as a brief history of the MIAP. This research project concludes that the problems faced by the MIAP originated from failed government policy which resulted in a lack of commitment for funding, long term programming, and farmer education, combined with a lack of accountability and sufficient checks and balances within the MIAP’s Board of Directors. This research is done through a review of program descriptions and literature of the MIAP, a review and analysis of archival documents of the operation of the MIAP, and interviews with former Board Members, staff, clients, and other officials involved in the operation of the MIAP or organizations around it. This dissertation serves as a micro-focus on the MIAP but also provides useful background information around the history of Indigenous agriculture in Manitoba.

Williams, Alex, and Tantoo Cardinal. The Pass System. 2015.

This documentary presents the story of the Pass System and the ways in which it fundamentally disrupted the lives of Indigenous people. The Pass System was a system which restricted Indigenous people’s ability to leave their reserves. In order to leave the reserve, a person would need to submit a request to an Indian Agent who would then either accept or refuse their request. These requests could be to leave for a day to go into another town or reserve for supplies, to leave for a week to go hunting, or to request to leave to see a relative in another location. These requests could be accepted or refused for any reason. This documentary does not deal directly with agriculture, but it does weave in other policy, such as the Permit System, to paint a better picture of how Indigenous people’s lives were fundamentally controlled and restricted by the Canadian Government. This documentary itself it very well made and makes its point clearly with good use of the medium of film. This representation of the Pass System illuminates an aspect of Canadian history which often goes overlooked in a medium which can be appreciated by anyone. It presents history typically relegated to the academy in a form suitable for popular consumption.

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