Impact of Indian Agent (and Department of Indian Affairs)


The Indian Agent ensured that Indian Act aimed at assimilation was implemented on Canadian reserves. Their far-reaching influence on the day-to-day lived experience of Indigenous peoples included, but was not limited to, determining who belonged to the band (especially for children born out of wedlock), whether or not a status Indian could leave the reserve (this applied mainly to those in Prairie provinces), whether or not they could sell or slaughter a pig or cow that they owned, whether or not they could sell crops, cut wood, or spend their money (which was usually held "in trust" by the Agent), and enforced Residential School attendance and could forcibly remove children from their families. In essence, an Indian Agent acted as a warden for reserve communities and could enforce dubious laws (such as the Pass System), and control the movements of First Nations peoples. They also determined whether or not a “status-Indian” could be a chief or band councillor, and whether or not a proposal put forward by a band council (consisting of the chief and counsellors) could be enacted, thus stripping political capacity and self-governance from the band. As such, the Indian Agent held the power of veto over band proposals (Steckley 2016, 3-4).

An example of the control that an Indian Agent had over reserve life can be found in an oral history interview with Joe Kapoeze, a resident of Red Pheasant. In the interview, Joe explains issues he and his father had with the Indian Agent (referred to in the interview as Mr. Millar) on the reserve. The issue began when Joe's father wanted to slaughter a cow, as he was going to start cutting hay. In response, Mr. Millar stated that "that if somebody killed a cow, he would be put in jail.” Issues continued when Mr. Millar would not allow access to the thresher. In response, Joe and his father paid a farmer off of reserve to thresh wheat for them. When Mr. Millar found out about this, he told Joe and his father to "to haul the wheat to his granary." In response, Joe's father stated that he would not do so, and that he intended to sell that wheat. In response, Mr. Millar explained that "if they didn’t have any paper, they would get picked up. He told us we have to get a permit if we want to sell anything." As can be seen, Indian Agents had a disproportionate and monopolistic amount of control on reserve life.

The paternalistic bureaucracy implemented by the Canadian government through the legislation of the Indian Act in 1876 had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the relations of families and communities within Indigenous nations. It undermined Indigenous structures of governance and community and family relations that had provided health and stability for thousands of years (this is implicated in the resource "Metis Life in Maryville, Saskatchewan" - see relevant resources on this page for more information).

Smith, Keith D. Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927. Edmonton: AU Press, 2009. Pg 104-128.


Steckley, John L. "Indian Agents: Rulers of the Reserve." New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2016. Pg 3-4.