The Pass System Documentary: An Interview with Alex Williams

By samsoncree
In April 16
May 3rd, 2017

1.What inspired you to create this documentary?  Alex Williams: Well I was doing research on the connection or lack of connections between Canada and South Africa and there was discussion about the pass system in one of those articles. And as you see in the film it’s not mentioned. It’s very intentional because I felt that there was a huge emotional gap of understanding in the non- Indigenous population about what happened and what was done in settlers names to take land and resources and about the history in general. The perception of Canadian history in non-indigenous communities was largely positive. People knew about residential schools but they didn’t understand that this was an overarching policy which was to take the land and residential schools were one tool amongst many in order to control and try to subjugate people. What’s wonderful is that people were not subjugated in the end. They endured a whole lot. They survived a whole lot. Many people in communities are strong and pride themselves. The people I interviewed in the film are heroes for doing just that. For surviving and maintaining their language and often, denying the Indian agent and the government officials.  There’s so much work to do to understand The Pass System, the permit system, rations, residential school, there’s so many more stories to tell but I wanted to focus on this really specific thing and try and find out about of it as much of it as I can. Also, non-indigenous people would find this very simple to understand (laughs) in a way because it doesn’t need to be said what would happen if you told a non-indigenous person, ‘You can’t go to Wetaskiwin or you can’t go to Edmonton without someone saying so.’ It was also very obvious to me that we were living in a country that did not do very, very simple things of respect.  The very fact that were having this conversation in English right now is a clear sign that this; the intention was get out of the Canadian states way in order to take land and resources.  This continues to be the objective today. So when we talk about reconciliation, often the truth part is omitted. So I’m not interested in being part of a program that is: hurry up, let’s all get along.  Let’s have some truth and there’s more truth to uncover before we even get anywhere. So the gap still exists in a major way. What the goal of all this was and what are the specific policies that put those in place? How are all these policies unified under one big umbrella goal.  2.When did you find out about the pass system and what was your reaction to the practice?  Alex: I found out about the pass system some time in 2009. Even though I grew up in Treaty 6 and there’s Indigenous people in my family and my larger extended family, I didn’t know anything about it. So I was deeply shocked, I thought this was an outrage.  Guide: How old are you now? Alex: 46. So I was born in ’70. I grew up being, I think intentionally educated to believe in that colonial system and to buy in. We talked about Sod Busters, we talked about home steaders, we talked about pioneers. We did not talk about colonizers. We did not talk about a colonizing force that spread across the land in order to take this land. People from that colonizing force weren’t told that when you come to this land you should do like when in Rome. You should try and learn people’s language, you should try and be respectful and know what the Treaties are; all of that was ignored. So when we look at the Treaty exercise it’s hard to believe the Canadian government was actually genuine in their intention to share the land and resources, it’s just the opposite. It was take not share.  3. Was any of this information told to you when you were growing up? I think you just answered that. Alex: None. Guide: What’s your education background? Alex: I have my grade 12 just barely (laughs). I have a BFA in Fine Arts.  Guide: That’s a Bachelor of Fine Arts.  Alex: I’m currently doing a Master of Fine Arts in York University. Guide: In Ontario.  4. Do you think there’s a connection of that practice (The Pass System) to modern times? Alex: Absolutely. I mean one of the big ones is incarceration. The pass systems intent was to criminalize these people who were off reserve. Criminalize people going into towns and cities. So when we look at practice it’s like Starlight Tours, it’s very clear that grows out of this division between towns and cities and it’s actually mandated by McDonald in 1885. This isn’t in the film but he says, ‘Should they fail to produce such permits they should be compelled to leave the precinct of said towns and villages.’ That is in essence a Starlight Tour that started in 1885 and goes into the 70s, 80s and 90s. For me growing up in Saskatoon that was a very present thing to hear about Starlight Tours. Guide: I’m familiar with it.  Alex: So there are a number of things. I think there’s a connection to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) as well because when they come to these towns and cities; all bets are off as to how people are treated by the authorities and settler communities. So there’s documentary evidence that shows how people are mistreated, hair is cut, people are harassed, people are thrown in jail, people are driven back to their reserves. Basically given the message that this is not your territory. Which is absolutely opposite of what Treaty was. 5. Last question: what do you think of the long term effects of this practice? Or do you think that there’s any long term effect? Alex: The effects continue also in the intent to destabilize communities by attempting to make them poor, attempt through the permit system as well. If people can’t get off reserve, they can’t engage in natural commerce with the communities around them, then eventually a gap is going to separate them. One of the big things though, is in the assumptions that non-indigenous people, when all the infrastructure is put in place that reflects non-indigenous people: the architecture, the street name, the bureaucracy, but everything underlying that is all the assumptions that prop up all of this.  That legacy is really not acknowledged enough. This is a white invention. It’s an invention of the Canadian state. I’ve never yet met someone who enthusiastically said in the indigenous community say, ‘This was a great idea.’ This non-indigenous Canada needs to acknowledge their responsibility that they’ve inherited and look to the opportunities to disrupt that. To say, ‘I will no longer stand by this system. I will no longer legitimize this way of operating.’ So when we look at consultation for access to resources we’re looking at a way of doing things that assumes that there is a superior way, and that superior way is the Canadian state handed down from Britain, and the inferior way, is suggested but I think it’s totally not true obviously, that there is the indigenous way. It’s not what you do when you want to be respectful to people from this land. END.