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Documentary explores historic injustice of pass system

By Andréa Ledding


SASKATOON — Alex Williams screened his documentary, The Pass System, at the Broadway Theatre on March 10, followed by a panel discussion including filmmaker and professor Tasha Hubbard, lawyer and activist Sylvia McAdam Sayswehum, and Little Pine Elder Jacob Pete.

“We’re all treaty people. We made treaties as equals. The Indian Act took that equality away,” said George Lafond, Treaty Commissioner, in his opening greetings.

The 50-minute documentary explored the illegally implemented and unlegislated pass system, which saw Indian Agents given complete control over when and if First Nations people could leave their reserves, under what terms, for what purpose, and for how long. The RCMP, who initially complained over the illegality of the system, eventually enforced it with threats of imprisonment. It began in 1885 and continued well into the 1950s and ’60s.

“This is the bitter history of Canada,” noted Pete. “We’ve suffered from the imposition of the system of segregation by the Crown. A lot of people don’t realize that, when we signed treaties with the Crown it was done on a nation-to-nation basis. We had our land base, we had our language, we had our territories.”

He added that the treaties were a sham: the federal government still wants the land, and despite First Nations never surrendering the land, it has been assumed by federal and provincial governments. Meanwhile, Pete has survived Indian residential schools.

“We were taken away from our grandparents; we were put in the back of a truck with straw and blankets and transported to residential school.”

He described being deloused with DDT and cold water, having his hair shaved, and being given boarding school clothes. “If you take a look at who was more civilized, we were. Our people were more willing. We were willing to share this land with new settlers coming in, we were prepared to share everything we had. And what did you do? You tried to destroy us. You tried to destroy our people, our education, our spirituality.”

He said that spirituality is part of the indigenous worldview, and the hurt is still there for his people for what has been done to them.

“What is the story about Saskatchewan, what is the story of the prairies that people know and people talk about and repeat?” asked Hubbard. “The images are of postcards advertising empty land that is here for a new start, without acknowledging indigenous title, without acknowledging indigenous presence, and without acknowledging the policies that led to widespread death and suffering.”

She added that the film effectively shows the foundation that was laid and is still ongoing of abuse of power, disparity, poverty, and racism. This can be traced to current policies by government agents, authorities, and the police.

“Sometimes I think about what this place would look like if the treaties had been honoured,” noted Hubbard. “What would that look like if the spirit and intent of the treaties to share these territories for everybody’s wellness and everybody’s success, what would this province look like?”

McAdam talked about being put to work in the sugar beet fields at the age of five, until the age of 18 or 19.

“When the pass system expired, they implemented something else, the sugar beet policy. They took indigenous children from across Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta and put them to work in the sugar beet fields,” said McAdam, after asking how many people had heard of the sugar beet policy and being met with little response. “There were thousands of indigenous children working in the sugar beet fields when they should have been in school. You’re not going to hear about this in your curriculum.”

They would work from eight in the morning until 10 at night, from May to August. Her mother would get up at night to bandage her siblings’ hands and feet because they were blistered and bleeding.

“This is the kind of history that your government withholds. I hope someone comes forward and gets after this government because justice needs to happen in order for healing to happen. We need to talk about it, we need to have those difficult conversations, even if you feel uncomfortable.”

McAdam noted she often hears people say it has nothing to do with them, or they feel guilty, but she doesn’t want their guilt — she wants them to talk to their children about it and teach them what has been done, and to pressure government to take action.

“I have no choice but to function in this system which is illegal here. We never ceded or surrendered our land or our rights,” noted McAdam. “You’ve been told a myth and a lie for so long that everyone believes it.”

She noted that every time First Nations have taken the government to court to challenge notions of title and jurisdiction, they’ve won, but the government has fallen back time and again on the Doctrine of Discovery, which needs to be refuted.

“Those are the challenges that we’re still fighting today,” noted McAdam. “You have to be vigilant to inform yourself.”

An audience member asked what a path forward to justice might look like.

“In the treaties it says one square mile for a family of five. I’m supposed to have one square mile. Do you think that’s been honoured?” asked McAdam. “I would love to have my piece of land. But this government refuses to honour that treaty promise. Imagine if the government honoured treaty promises, we could begin there.”

Pete added that being given back the language is key, as well as relationships: with each other and with the land.

“The treaties should be honoured. All of you are treaty people. Treaties were signed in the presence of the Creator, it is a holy covenant between your people and our people. Honour that relationship.”

The conclusion of the Elders, said Pete, was that spirituality and language need to be restored, and women need to be honoured as keepers of the land and water, and bearers of life. In history women especially have been stripped of even their names, but women need to be restored as keepers of knowledge, land, water, and future generations.

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