With Yellowknife being the north, the film festival will have at films discussing aboriginal issues. Permafrost of the Peel Plateau looked at how climate change affects an aboriginal town. SOL looked at the epidemic of suicide amongst aboriginals. After the Last River looked the Government’s poor treatment of the people of Attawapiskat. And now we have The Pass System, a documentary that looks at a horrifying moment in Canadian history when people of Cree, Soto, Dene, Ojibwa and Blackfoot descent couldn’t leave their reserves without a pass. Narrated by Dances with Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal with music by Cris Derksen, the film looks at the history of the Pass System from its illegal foundation to its eventual end. It also has a one on one interview with the elders whose rights were trampled on by this system.
“Before the treaty, they had a freedom to go wherever they want to” says World War Two veteran Philip Favel. But then in 1885, Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald created the pass system, a system that prevented aboriginals of various tribes from leaving their reserve without a permit. One received a pass for 2 weeks of hunting. Another had a 10 day pass to get married. One man couldn’t even go to the hospital without a pass. It’s another system alongside residential schools and other policies created for the sole purpose of undermining the basic human rights of aboriginal rights.
How did this system come to pass? Illegally it turns out. McDonald knew what he was creating was illegal even for that time, so he snuck it under the House of Commons. Not that the Federal government were going to be of much help. While they were claiming equality, they were gradually stripping rights after rights with each treaty signed. If this film has any villain, its politician Hayter Reed, who helped to get this system set up. He makes clear his low attitude towards First Nations people with quotes like “Indians are lazy; therefore they must have few rations.” And his henchman came in the form of “Indian Agents” who guarded these people like they were prisoners.
Director Alex Williams provides testimony after testimony from elders who grew up with this illegal and immoral system. “We were raise to believe whatever the white man says is true” recalls one elder. Another elder recalled his father missing ration day for a day and was punished with rotten bacon. The most heartbreaking interview comes from Favel; a man who put his life on the line for his country, only for that country to treat him likes a third class citizen upon return. He also combines archives and documents to provide a look into Canadian history. He finds evidence connecting the system to Louis Riel’s rebellion, the farming industry and the residential schools.
The system eventually came to an end in 1945, when the Supreme Court found the Pass System unconstitutional and the passes ordered destroyed. A study of internal affairs can be found in the Glenbow museum. Unfortunately, it has not stopped the prejudice that still looms. There are still variations of the system that still looms underneath. Aboriginal Artist Alex Javier recalls applying for a college despite them claiming it was “too high class” for him. Even when he got in, he still had to carry papers in case police cruisers stopped him. “They want to control our land; they want to control our resource. They just want to do it politely.”
“We are not free. The Government’s still trying to control us.”
The Pass Systems pulls no punches at the disgusting racism behind this corrupt system, showing the devastating effects on the people of the Canadian reserves, especially in the Prairies. It draws uncomfortable parallels with the apartheid system of South Africa. It is unfortunate the prejudice still lives on, but films like this need to exist so hold a mirror up to modern society. It is through films like the Pass System that people can look within themselves to change. To make change from the inside is to make a chance to the outside.
Williams did a Q & A after the screening. In one surprising, he didn’t hold much against the “Indian Agents who guarded the area. “I don’t blame them because they had families to feed” He states. Then he admits “I’d probably do it too.” It kind of makes you wonder what you would do in a situation like this.
In the Q&A, Williams meant compliance to the Indian Alliance Policy, not Indian Agents Enforcements of policies. Add the fact that many children were taken away and held by the government via residential schools and lack of job opportunities, it’s more understandable. William’s comments below deliver more correct details I missed.