By: Rafik El Werfalli
For over 60 years, the Indigenous population of Canada has been denied the freedom of choosing where to live. Under a government-run “pass system,” Indigenous peoples were forced to live on reserves. Any who wanted to leave required written documentation — a pass — issued by their reserve’s government-appointed “Indian agent,” that outlined the reasons for and duration of the leave.
First introduced by Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1880s, the pass system restricted the rights of the Indigenous people of Canada and was implemented without going through Parliament.
Alex Williams’ new documentary film, The Pass System, explores the history of the government effort to further segregate and limit the freedoms of Indigenous communities. Williams highlights the different perspectives on the discriminatory system and includes stories of First Nation Elders from these Indigenous communities that illustrate the impact of the system on their lives.
Williams was raised in Treaty 6 territory, Saskatchewan, and grew up in a society that he saw as racist. Growing up in a low-income neighbourhood, he witnessed many people that were pushed out economically. According to Williams, “social and structural racism” was common in his hometown.
“[The pass system] was intended to keep people of colour out and control the indigenous population, restraining and confining them to reserves as much as possible,” he explained.
Ian Mosby, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University added, “Canada has a problem with their attitudes towards indigenous people, not just the government, but also Canadians themselves. We need to really look deep down at dealing with this issue and dealing with the structural racism that Indigenous people faced and are currently facing.”
“Canadians in general have been taught a very selective version of their history and many historians have been working to change that.“
Williams agrees with Mosby. “Canadians in general have been taught a very selective version of their history and many historians have been working to change that,” said Williams. “I am hoping that it can be some help in understanding the roots of this very Canadian kind of racism, colonization and genocide.”
Mosby added that many Canadian aren’t aware of their past and don’t realize the true scale of racial segregation and discrimination that Indigenous people have and continue to experience.
The film has received wide coverage, including from the Toronto Star and CBC. The film has screened at numerous locations including the Toronto International Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival and at least 20 more screenings across Canada.
“This is a story that I think is really important for people to know, and hopefully come to this documentary, and hearing from the director, people will start to get a sense of how much they don’t know about Indigenous people” said Mosby.
The Pass System will be screened at McMaster University on Mar. 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the Michael DeGroote Centre for Learning and Discovery (MDCL) in room 1105.
Photo Credit: Toronto International Film Festival