The Pass System and the Indian Act – Annotated Bibliography

By Summer Sheridan

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

The Indian Pass System was implemented in western Canada in 1885, following the North West Rebellion. Initially justified as a temporary measure to protect Indigenous peoples from settlers who would employ violence to seek retribution for the Rebellion, the system remained in place until the early 1940s in certain regions. The conception of the pass system can be traced back to Assistant Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed in his “Memorandum for the Hon the Indian Commissioner Relative to the Future Management of Indians” (1885) that was addressed to Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney. The intention of the system was to keep Indigenous peoples living on reserves in western Canada from leaving their reserves unless they had a formal pass from the Indian Agent. The more truthful reasoning for the pass system was to allow the Canadian government to control Indigenous peoples, while ensuring that settler and Indigenous communities remained separated. This separation allowed the Canadian government to control settlers’ perceptions of the Indigenous population, helping to ensure the smooth settlement of western Canada, further ostracizing Indigenous peoples of the region.

Despite being in place for over 50 years, the pass system went against treaty rights and was completely illegal – a fact that the Canadian government was well aware of, which is proven in written documents. However, the government was able to restrict Indigenous peoples to reserves without any legal basis due to an amendment to the Indian Act, which gave Indian Agents the power of justice of the peace to be able to enforce the Criminal Code provisions for vagrancy and loitering. This amendment created a loophole, so while it was still illegal to explicitly force Indigenous peoples to remain on reserves, it could be done by excluding them from spaces outside of reserves. The Canadian government’s high success in impeding Indigenous peoples from pursuing any legal claims against the government helped to ensure that any potential legal recourse to object to the pass system would not be exercised by Indigenous peoples. The pass system had significant negative social, political, and economic impacts on Indigenous communities, in addition to lasting trauma that has become inter-generational.

Historians rely on a very limited number of primary sources when studying the topic of the pass system. The historiography points to this being directly the result of the circular letter dated July 11, 1941 from the Director of the Department of Mines and Resources. This letter is contained in the listed source that is entitled “The Reserve Pass System and Its Impact on Treaty Relationships”, which called for the return of all pass books from Indian Agents to Ottawa in order to be destroyed. As a result, very few primary source documents concerning the pass system exist. In fact, Bennet (1974) was undertaken simply in order to validate the existence of the system. As a result, much of the historiography relies on the same primary source documents. One such document, which is included in this annotated bibliography, is Reed’s Memorandum however other documents include government correspondences within and between the federal government, the Department of Indian Affairs and the North West Mounted Police.

Because the limited number of written sources are mostly governmental documents, the vast majority of the historiography focuses on the inception of the pass system, the government’s reasoning for its implementation, and how it was able to be sustained despite the knowledge that it was illegal. Much attention is also paid to the role of Hayter Reed in the system. This is in part due to the fact that he is credited as the creator of the system, but also because much of the government documentation concerning the topic involves Reed in some capacity. Without at least partially examining the role of Reed, it would be very difficult to understand the history of the pass system.

While approaching the study of the pass system from the perspective of the government and its policies is an important aspect of the topic, the lack of focus on the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples is a large gap within the historiography, as it results in the minimization of the cruelty that was the realty of the system. By focusing heavily on the political side of the pass system, the historiography has failed to present a holistic account of the personal implications of the pass system in Canada. For this reason, if you are to only look at one source from this annotated bibliography, let it be the documentary, The Pass System. Not only does it provide all of the necessary key information, including explicit references to primary source documents, it emphasizes the importance of oral history and witness testimony in understanding the personal impact of the pass system rather than simply the political and economic impacts. That being said, Indigenous peoples are not ignored in the historiography of the pass system. Specifically, within their greater work, Miller examines how Indigenous peoples resisted Indian Agents’ attempts to implement the pass system. Additionally, Bourgeois employs an analysis of the pass system to understand how modern-day stereotypes and prejudices of Indigenous women were crafted, concluding that colonial policies like the pass system have had long lasting negative impacts on Indigenous peoples. While not the focus of the historiography, it cannot be said that Indigenous peoples are ignored in discussions of the pass system, but going forward, it would be beneficial for historians to pay greater attention to this aspect of the topic.

Annotated Bibliography

Barron, Laurie F. “The Indian Pass System in the Canadian West, 1882-1935.” Prairie Forum 12, no. 2 (Fall 1987): 25-39.

Utilized by numerous scholars since its publication, Barron filled a gap in Indigenous historiography by providing an in-depth exploration of the pass system that was instituted by Indian Affairs in Canada at the end of the 19th century. Prior to her work, few scholars had dedicated much attention to the topic of the pass system and those that did had not written more than a few pages. Barron’s article provides a detailed analysis of the inception of the pass system, the Canadian government’s reasoning for its institution, the attempted legal justifications used to maintain the system, and the reasons for why the system inevitably ceased to exist. Relying on primary sources including government documents, police communications, and a newspaper article, as well as existing works by historians, Barron is able to critically engage with the subject matter while providing a detailed overview comprehensible by those unfamiliar with the topic. Adding to the continued relevance of the piece is Barron’s extensive use of examples. When analyzing each of the aforementioned subtopics of the pass system, Barron employs a variety of supporting evidence. These examples not only serve to support Barron’s work, but provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of how the pass system affected the everyday lives of Indigenous peoples living on reserves, as well as the logic of government officials when implementing the system. Rather than presenting Indigenous peoples solely as victims, and settlers solely as perpetrators, Barron provides a more complex understanding of the topic by highlighting resistance to the system that occurred by both peoples. Evident by its continued use, Barron’s work provides a strong analysis of the pass system.

Bennet, B. Study of Passes for Indians to Leave their Reserves. [Ottawa, ON]: Indian and Northern Affairs, 1974.    

Bennet’s work is a government inquiry into the existence of the pass system that was implemented by the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs at the end of the 19th century. As explained by other sources included in this bibliography, the Canadian government lacked any historical evidence in its archives to validate the existence of the pass system. Thus, the inquiry is a compilation of all historical documents including previously issued passes and a variety of government correspondences to prove the existence of the system. This source is extremely valuable because it offers access to all the physical government documents about the topic that could be found at the time of publication. While Bennet’s work seems redundant now, when it was published it would have been ground-breaking for the historiography of the pass system. At this point in history, settlers still did not value Indigenous peoples’ oral histories and thus would not have taken their accounts as evidence of the pass system. Additionally, practically no scholarly works had addressed the system save for a few pages due to the general lack of evidence available on the topic. Therefore, by compiling and presenting all of the existing documents on the subject, Bennet helped enable further academic study of the pass system. Despite the numerous works that have been done since the publication of this report, it remains relevant, as it provides the reader unbiased and unfiltered access to pertinent primary sources.

Bourgeois, Robyn. “Race, Space, and Prostitution: The Making of Settler Colonial Canada.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 30, no. 3 (2018): 371-397. DOI: 10.3138/cjwl.30.3.002

While not focused on the pass system, Bourgeois’s work demonstrates how its impacts are still present in modern-day. Using Sherene H. Razack’s analytical and methodological framework, Bourgeois seeks to examine the interconnections of settler-colonialism and prostitution through the analysis of key events in Canada’s settler colonial history: early settlement in British Columbia, the Indian Act, the pass system, and Vancouver’s missing women. Although a large portion of the piece draws from Razack’s work, Bourgeois employs numerous other scholars to support her analysis; however, her failure to utilize primary sources slightly weakens her historical arguments. That being said, Bourgeois’s work is a strong contribution to the historiography of the pass system, as it explores the system’s lasting implications on the treatment of Indigenous women in present-day. Bourgeois states that in addition to attempting to quell any potential military threats, the pass system was implemented to keep “immoral” and “corrupt” Indigenous women from negatively influencing settlers, specifically through prostitution. This served to reinforce settlers’ moral superiority while establishing Indigenous women as potential “immoral contaminants” that needed to be excluded, if not contained. The lasting impact of this system is the inherent view of Indigenous women as less than, which can be seen as having a direct correlation with the continued crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Bourgeois’s article may not direct much focus on the pass system, but it presents an interesting understanding of its continued negative impacts that have thus far been rarely explored.

Carter, S. A. “Assault upon the ‘Tribal’ System: Government Policy after 1885.” In Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy, 130-158. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.

Being published shortly after Laurie F. Barron’s work on the pass system, Carter’s work helped fill a gap within Indigenous historiography. Chapter 4 of Carter’s book focuses on four aspects of Indigenous policy at the turn of the 19th century – agriculture, the attempted elimination of the tribal system, the pass system, and the permit system. Carter employs the work of other authors combined with numerous primary sources including government communications, experts consulted by government committees and newspaper articles in order to present evidence in support of her arguments. Looking specifically at the section on the pass system, Carter examines how the system was created, employed, and maintained, with specific attention paid to the role of Hayter Reed and the illegality of the system, which was well known by government officials throughout its implementation. While she focuses heavily on the influence and involvement of Reed in the pass system, Carter is careful not to minimize the role of other colonial actors in the establishment and enactment of the system. The role or simply lack of resistance by various actors including Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, various employees in the Department of Indian Affairs and the North West Mounted Police is highlighted in addition to Reed’s strong involvement. Another strength of the piece is the strong emphasis placed on the fact that the government of Canada was aware of the illegality of the system even prior to its inception, yet continued to implement it. With this fact, Carter is able to demonstrate how inhumane the pass system truly was.

Miller, J.R. “Owen Glendower, Hotspur, and Canadian Indian Policy.” Ethnohistory 37, no. 4 (1990): 386-415

Employing oral history, pictorial evidence, and government and missionary records, Miller attempts to answer how effective the Canadian government was at controlling and assimilating Indigenous peoples at the end of the 19th century, specifically examining the policies of the pass system, prohibition of religious ceremonies and residential schools. Rather than focusing on the various ways in which these policies oppressed Indigenous peoples, Miller adds to the Indigenous historiography concerning the pass system and the Indian Act by analyzing how Indigenous peoples actively resisted these policies. Using numerous examples, Miller portrays Indigenous peoples as independent actors, rather than as passive and comparable to children, which he claims was often done in other works of the period. While this approach risks underplaying the atrocities committed by the Canadian government using these policies, Miller is careful to emphasize the oppression that occurred without presenting Indigenous peoples solely as victims lacking autonomy.

Nestor, Robert James. “Hayter Reed, Severalty, and the Subdivision of Indian Reserves on the Canadian Prairies.” MA diss. University of Regina, 1998.

Relying on a plethora of sources including numerous works by other historians and primary sources, specifically government documents and communications, Nestor uses the second chapter of his dissertation to examine Hayter Reed, the mind behind the creation of the Indian pass system. Within this chapter, Nestor provides a biography of Reed, explaining how he became not only involved but influential in the Indian Department and how his prejudiced views of Indigenous peoples had a lasting impact on the Canadian government’s Indian policy. Primarily relying on Reed’s “Memorandum for the Hon the Indian Commissioner Relative to the Future Management of Indians” and communications between Reed, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney, and Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, Nestor explains and analyses the rationale behind the creation and implementation of the pass system. His work contributes to the historiography by linking the pass system as having stemmed from Reed’s desire to reinforce the policy of self-sufficiency. By focusing on this relationship, Nestor is able to explain how the pass system became an important tool in controlling Indians, as well as managing the settlers’ perception of Indians under the MacDonald administration. Rather than focusing on the impact of the pass system on the various members of Canadian society, Nestor explores how the system came to be created, not only from a policy perspective but as a result of Reed’s view of Indigenous peoples.

Reed, Hayter. “Memorandum for the Hon the Indian Commissioner Relative to the Future Management of Indians.” Native Studies Review 2, no. 2 (1986): 127-130.

This primary source was written by the Assistant Indian Commissioner, Hayter Reed to the Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, on July 20, 1885. The memorandum is a list of ­­Reed’s recommendations for how the Canadian government should manage “Indians” following the North West Rebellion of 1885 and includes Dewdney’s comments in the margins. Reed crafted his recommendations based on his bigoted views of Indigenous peoples, which were formed in part by his experiences as Indian Agent at Battleford. Most relevant to this annotated bibliography is recommendation seven, which suggests the implementation of a pass system that would restrict “Indians” from leaving their reserves without written permission. Although it is short, this document is an extremely important source for understanding the pass system in Canada, as historians consider it to be the foundational document that initiated the creation of the system. As a primary source, there is no analysis of the implications of what Reed is suggesting, but in reading his recommendations, readers can get a sense of the government’s overall sentiment towards Indigenous peoples during the time period, and thus, understand how it was possible to have such an archaic system approved.

Smith, Keith D. Liberalism, Surveillance and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927. Edmonton: AU Press, 2009.

Smith’s book explores how liberalism, usually seen as a foundational component to freedom, was used in the creation of Canada to suppress Indigenous peoples during westward expansion. While Smith covers a variety of topics, only the section on the pass system is relevant to this work. In this section, it is argued that the pass system is an example of the Canadian state’s employment of exclusionary liberalism, which Smith supports by examining how the pass system was used to limit the freedom of Indigenous peoples living on reserves and ensure that the inequality between Indigenous peoples and settlers persisted. The section details how the idea of the pass system was conceived and later put into action through a joint effort between the Department of Indian Affairs and the North West Mounted Police. Smith focuses primarily on how as a result of the system’s illegality, it was enforced through “persuasion” rather than force; additionally, the author addresses how “persuasion” could most often be understood as coercion. Drawing on the works of previous historians, in addition to a large array of primary sources (which include internal government communications, newspaper articles, and even the journal of an Indian Agent), Smith is able to present a convincing argument supported by numerous examples. His focus on how the pass system influenced and was influenced by the overarching political agendas of the Canadian government provides the historiography with a deeper understanding of the political theory behind the inception of the system.

“The Reserve Pass System and Its Impact on Treaty Relationships.” Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. 2011.

This source does not present any arguments, but rather provides numerous primary source documents related to the pass system, in addition to a brief explanation of the system. The primary source documents included are an example of the pass books that were used by Indian Agents, issued passes and the circular letter that officially ended the use of the system in Canada. While not an analytical examination of the pass system, this source is highly important to the historiography as it contains numerous documents that serve as the foundation for historians’ examination of the topic. Without these documents, it would be extremely difficult to prove to those that do not accept oral histories and personal testimonies as valid sources that the pass system ever existed. The numerous examples of issued passes provide information into who these passes were issued to and for what reasons. Additionally, the passes span from 1889 to 1934, directly contradicting the circular letter dated July 11, 1941 from the Director of the Department of Mines and Resources, which claims that the pass system was ended in the 1920s. By presenting the information without analysis, the source allows the reader to draw conclusions based on the primary source evidence and form their own opinions as to the level of truth of the letter that finally ended the system, which is also one of the only government documents acknowledging the system’s existence. The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan have allowed those interested in the topic to easily access numerous primary source documents which prove the existence of the pass system in Canada.

Warden, Kathryn. “Indian Act: Permit to Control a Culture.” The Star Phoenix 11, no. 6 (1993): 7-8.

Warden begins her article by exploring how the permit system combined with the pass system ensured that Indigenous peoples in Canada remained economically disadvantaged in comparison to their settler counterparts. Adding to the historiography on the pass system by making the information more easily accessible for the average reader lacking any previous knowledge on the subject, Warden details how the system was implemented despite it being illegal. Although the government lacked any legal grounds to restrict Indigenous peoples to reserves, an amendment to the Indian Act that gave Indian Agents the power of justice of the peace to enforce the Criminal Code provisions for vagrancy and loitering enabled the creation of a loophole. While Indigenous peoples still had the legal recourse to object to the pass system, Warden emphasizes how the Canadian government was highly successful in impeding Indigenous people from pursuing any legal claims against the government, ensuring that readers do not place blame on Indigenous peoples for not taking action. While the lack of supporting evidence and reference to supporting documents weakens the piece, as a newspaper article that is quite succinct, the piece has a far greater reach, as those with little interest in the topic are more likely to read it than a lengthy piece. The strongest point of her work though, is its ending in which Warden emphasizes that although the pass and permit systems are now terminated, the Canadian government continues to exercise immense control over Indigenous peoples lives, serving to remind readers that these are not simply issues relegated to the past.

Williams, Alex, dir. The Pass System. 2015; Toronto: Tamarack Productions.

Through the use of eye-witness testimonies, a variety of primary sources and interviews with historians, Williams gives a detailed history of the pass system in Canada with specific attention paid towards the impact of the system on the lives of Indigenous peoples living on reserves. Whereas other sources question how thoroughly the pass system was implemented, by using the testimonies of those who experienced the pass system or oral history recounted by descendants, Williams does not theorize but is able to provide a first-hand account of the realities of life under the system. This is the biggest strength of the film as it effectively conveys to viewers that although no longer in practice, the pass system only ceased to exist within the lifetimes of those still presently alive. As a result, it is much more difficult for the viewer to disconnect from the subject matter, as it would not simply be ignoring the political aspects and institutional implementation, but rather the lived sufferings of another tangible human being. Supported by interviews with historians who are experts in the field, these testimonies are strengthened to the point of irrefutability. Not only does Williams contribute more facts to the historiography of the pass system, but he also enables the contribution of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples, as well. 

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