The film, The Pass System, reveals that for sixty years of our history (1885-1945), Canadian authorities lied and cheated to restrict indigenous Canadians to reserves, knowingly violating treaties and instituting a pass system that curtailed indigenous rights in order to enable authorities to create, from coast to coast, the Canada they dreamed of.
Director Alex Williams, who grew up in Western Canada where the pass system was prevalent, used personal interviews of indigenous elders (Migwich) and archival material to recreate a time when Canada was a fragmented dream of powerful, ambitious men with ties to the United Kingdom, but who eyed land occupied by various indigenous tribes, to make for themselves a new nation.
To create this new nation, treaties were instrumental; However, these treaties were, in practice, incidental to the governing class. This is despite the fact eight of the first eleven prime ministers of Canada were lawyers, including first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
More important to Macdonald than honouring treaties, the film suggests, was the railway (the Canadian Pacific Railway) that would unite Canada coast to coast, and safeguarding white settlers, particularly in areas prone to rebellion, given the unsuccessful North-West Rebellion stoked by Metis leader Louis Riel.
Pass requirements, enforced by Indian agents working for the government of Canada’s Indian Affairs department restricted the movement of first nations and Metis people. Even chiefs needed a pass to leave the reservation. To trap and hunt food, to wed, to visit friends, to sell or trade goods, native people had to get passes signed by the local Indian agent, or else be jailed.
The pass system is eventually used to reinforce the separation of families forced to give up their children to residential schools. These parents, who could not refuse to send their children, at around age seven, to these schools, would not be allowed to visit their children there, and would be jailed by the Canadian police force of the time, the North-West Mounted Police, if they disobeyed the rules.
Many records of the pass system were destroyed to cover-up the practice, but the Glenbow Archives in Calgary has proof the system existed. Informally, it is said to have continued until 1969 despite others like Harold McGill clarifying in 1941 that the pass system was illegal.
Among others, the first hand account of Artist Alex Janvier underscores the demoralizing effect of the pass system, which affected him as he tried to go to art school and live off the reserve.
There are historical depictions of war in the film, which do not help to drive home the injustice of the pass system, and are perhaps less important, but overall, the documenting of current and personal stories and family histories shows the legacy of prejudicial systems, and that a price is always paid, even if its by future generations for the actions of those who came before.
If there is any credit for Canada today, it is that we are investigating the past and have an opportunity to right past wrongs.
This righting of wrongs, and desire to create harmony between various interests obviously drove Williams to expose the Canadian government’s past use of the pass system, one not unlike what apartheid-era South Africa used to marginalize natives there. And if you are wondering why he, a non-native, made the film, Williams points to his Saskatoon upbringing, and his Lebanese-Italian heritage, which opened him up to ridicule.
It is a “soft and powerful tool,” he said of ridicule, one that encourages assimilation, and is the reason he changed his name at age eight to Alex. Furthermore, he wanted to help get the story and its facts out, because the indigenous who have tried have been ignored.
If the film stimulates discussion, he is happy, because “it is a story that involves us all.” And he hopes it makes us question the privileges we continue to enjoy.
In keeping with that desire for discussion, there was a discussion after the film’s initial showing at TIFF Lightbox, and one elderly man, who had been a teacher, on the verge of tears, said that while he was aware of residential schools, he was devastated by the knowledge that the pass system existed. It made him “ashamed to be Canadian.”
Feeling that way is understandable because Indian residential schools and the well-kept secret of segregation on reserves is shameful. At the same time, this is home. The evils that created it may be beyond our control, but atoning is not. That is why Williams hopes that such shame may be “a little tremor in order to do something.” To feel shame and turn away from it is counterproductive.
He and others suggest one of the most important things to do is listen — listen to indigenous peoples when they speak, and teach others the facts they may be unaware of. It is part of reconciliation and building a home you are proud of.
Note: At TIFF Lightbox, Director Alex Williams introduces the screening of The Pass System on Sunday, February 21 at 3:00pm.