Introduction of Pass System

In an effort to keep Aboriginal people within a contained area, the Vagrancy Act was applied to Indigenous people on reserves so that the government could regulate the movement of Indigenous people. The Vagrancy Act also allowed the government to prosecute those Indigenous people who left the reserve. The Pass system began as a result of unofficial discussions between government officials in the early 1880s out of fear that prairie Indians might organize and form a Pan-Indian alliance in resistance of government policy. Following the 1885 resistance, the Pass System, which was an unofficial policy, became widely used. Books of passes were sent to Indian agencies in 1886. First Nations people could not leave the reserve without obtaining a pass from the Indian agent. They were required to disclose where they wanted to go, after which the agent determined whether or not they could leave. The agent also determined when they could leave and when they had to return.


Bennett, B. Study of Passes for Indians to Leave Their Reserves. Ottawa: Treaties and Historical Research Centre, 1974. NA, Hayter Reed Papers, MG 29 E 106, vol. 14, file 'Reed, Hayter 1893,' H. Reed to T.M Daly, 25 March 1893.

The Pass System was not enacted by legislation, and therefore authorities had no legal power to enforce it. Early on in its implementation, the NWMP protested the enforcement of this system due to its not being codified in law. They attempted to make an organizational decision to not enforce it. Hayter Reed, as head of the Department of Indian Affairs, fought this in court and ultimately won, reversing the decision of the NWMP to not enforce the system. Although Reed knew that the system had no basis in law, he believed that this should be kept secret from First Nations people for as long as possible. The decision to keep the unlawfulness of the pass system secret was widely understood by Indian agents and the NWMP. By keeping First Nations people out of cities and white settlements, it functioned as a system of racial segregation that was in effect for over 60 years, well into the 1940s. Isolating First Nations people on reserves made them easier to monitor and easier to control through distribution and withholding of rations, since it also allowed Indian Agents to control the ability of First Nations people to buy and sell their agricultural goods and other products that would contribute to making a livelihood. The intentional restriction from competition in the marketplace prevented their economic success and led to the failure of the agricultural project on reserves. Restricting Indigenous people from competing in the local marketplace also served to give the white settler population economic success. The pass system also functioned as a disciplinary device as it enabled the Agent to distribute or withhold access to goods or services as deemed necessary to maintain control. If an Indian did not behave in accordance with the Agent's wishes, the Agent could refuse or delay a permit or access to rations or other services. Indians who did behave in accordance with the Agent's wishes were favoured with various kinds of land and assistance. An Indian who fell out of the good opinion of the agent would be forced to sell his cattle and find debilitating work, often in the form of manual labor such as clearing bush or picking rocks, which was seasonal and thus not always available. In the long-term, the effect of this policy is such that it drove Indigenous people away from farming and more deeply into poverty.
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