Sunday November 29, 2015

The pass system: another dark secret in Canadian history

For more than 60 years, many Indigenous Peoples had to get approval to leave their reserve. Passes were handed out at the discretion of the Indian agent.

For more than 60 years, many Indigenous Peoples had to get approval to leave their reserve. Passes were handed out at the discretion of the Indian agent. (Alex Williams/Tamarack Productions)

Canadians are becoming increasingly aware of residential schools and their impacts on First Nations people. But many have not yet heard about another system of segregation — one that often kept First Nations confined to their communities.

The pass system was in effect for 60 years on reserves across western Canada. Any First Nations person who wanted to leave their community, for any reason, had to have a pass approved by the reserve's Indian agent that they would carry with them, stipulating the leave's purpose and duration.  

Filmmaker Alex Williams decided to dig into this dark chapter in Canadian history for his first documentary, The Pass System.

The Pass System Official Trailer from Alex Williams on Vimeo.

Williams said the pass system came into effect after the North-West Rebellion in 1885. 

"It was an illegal... system that was put in place as a temporary 'security measure' after the events of 1885 that stuck around for over 60 years," he said. 

"Its intent was, in the words of one historian, to keep [indigenous] people out of the towns and cities."

Williams said he was inspired to make the film because growing up in Saskatoon he saw the social divide in the community. It was something he didn't understand. So he started asking his own family, then historians if they'd heard of the pass system.

That search led him to a number of First Nations elders who shared their stories.

"I was quite honoured and I want to publicly thank them for taking the time to sit down with me," he said.

Williams said although the pass system is believed to have ended around 1941, it may have continued in different ways after that.

"Indian agents were judges, and First Nations weren't citizens until 1960 so official means of resistance were very difficult."

As Williams dug deeper into the topic, he discovered why so few people have heard of the pass system. He found a letter from 1941, "in which the director of Indian Affairs at that time said, 'Send us all your passbooks and they may be destroyed.'"

While doing research for the film, Williams spent time in the National Archives looking for documentation, but only found two passes.

"So there's enormous questions about the record-keeping process," he said. "Also, I think we have to take into account, that many people were not interested to understand the emotional impact of these and other systems on First Nations people."

After spending five years immersed in the topic, Alex Williams hopes a film like The Pass System adds to Canada's understanding of our own history. 

"It helped me understand my society better and it made me understand the divisions in society and the healing that needs to happen."