The Pass System: A "Very Canadian Tactic of Colonization"
An interview with director Alex Williams
Alex Williams' documentary The Pass System (playing at the Lightbox this Saturday February 27 at 2pm) delves into a dark and little-known aspect of Canada's history: for approximately 60 years, beginning in 1885, indigenous people living on reserves in Western Canada were required to have a "pass" in order to travel off reserve.
We spoke to Williams about the process of making the film and the questions it raises.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE A FILM ABOUT THIS ISSUE (AS OPPOSED TO GOING TO THE MEDIA OR WRITING ABOUT IT)?
Where I grew up in Saskatoon, I often witnessed racism in many forms, and I unfortunately still feel that’s very much with us, although in different ways – it often tries to hide in plain sight.
A major source of this was white Canadians’ conditioning: their culture is still constantly reinforced through the media, books, architecture, socialization, and so on. The colonial story they – and I – had been taught, was something along the lines of: Canada is a nation founded by polite adventurers and heroic settlers with good intentions, who abhorred anything American. Louis Riel's and the Métis Northwest Resistance of 1885 notwithstanding, the West was largely benignly settled by "pioneers" who did the country a good deed by improving it. They were the good guys.
And yet, there is no colonial project that isn’t based on exploitation, land acquisition by force, and genocide, of one form or another. I thought the implementation of the pass system revealed a very Canadian tactic of colonization, one that non-Indigenous Canadians needed to hear.
Their government had been fundamentally deceitful in its implementation of the system, knowing it had no basis in law, but attempting to keep its illegality a secret in order to better enforce it. In the words of one senior official: “… all we can endeavour to do is to keep the true position from the Indians (sic) as long as possible.” This needed to be seen to be believed – the words, and the fact that a man, a Prime Minister, had decided that was a very good idea to segregate people. John A. Macdonald had said it was “…in the highest degree desirable to adopt it.”
I had a sense that people might be stirred to hear from Elders – the voices of people whose lives and parents’ lives were directly affected by the system. It was important not to make a story however about then, but about now. How did this system’s legacy impact our present?
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT SHAPING THE STORY OF THIS FILM?
There were many different conceptualizations of the film, and I’m very grateful to the many people who contributed along the way to get to its final form. My editor Igal Hecht and Executive Producer James Cullingham were key in helping arrive at a final shape. But along the way it was important to show the film to Elders in the film to ensure the film’s intent was respectful and accurate as far as their experience was concerned. I also wanted historians – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous to vet the film’s – research findings, as I knew that if we heard from a contingent of people about the system, it couldn’t be dismissed as simply one person’s story. So I traveled to many communities to ask Elders to listen to their testimonies about the system, and for the honour of their words in the final film.
WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO SPEAK WITH THE ELDERS WHO HELPED YOU TELL THIS STORY?
I was very humbled and grateful they spoke with me, and I had to listen closely, with my heart, and follow protocols. I mostly needed to be clear about my intentions.
Their stories – the core of the film – are not only crucial for people to understand how this system affected their families, but also purely as evidence. The government appears to have intentionally destroyed many of the documents about the system.
WE OBVIOUSLY HOPE LOTS OF PEOPLE CATCH THE FILM AT THE LIGHTBOX THIS WEEKEND, BUT FOR THOSE WHO CAN'T, ARE THERE PLANS FOR WIDER DISTRIBUTION?
The film is touring across the country at the moment, with over 20 upcoming screenings in Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., the Northwest Territories, Ontario, Nova Scotia and others. We are talking with three major museums about potential screenings and exhibitions.
It will also be broadcast both on APTN and CBC, and we are developing an interactive component for online.
A Facebook page has been very useful in connecting us with communities though, even throughout the research and production phases, as we connected with one of the subjects in the film through Facebook.
WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK FILM AS A MEDIUM MIGHT HAVE IN HELPING TO EXPOSE THE REALITIES OF OUR HISTORY?
It might give us a visceral sense of something; but that can also be achieved by great writing or a great photograph, for example. I suppose film has the main power to associate things that say enough by being able to see and/or hear them. In this case, I often tried to show the evidence of the pass system, and hear how it impacted people. History is alive, and clearly breathes through our lives. Seeing the evidence of segregation in Canada and hearing from the people affected might make us question how it impacts our present.
CAN TELLING THESE STORIES HELP TO HEAL THE ONGOING DIVIDE IN CANADIAN SOCIETY?
I sure hope so. I know not knowing them moves us in the other direction, towards unconscious ignorance, received privilege, and bureaucratic indifference and violence (amongst other stuff). We need to care about each other, and ignoring or denying what happened is a kind of violence in and of itself.
Cindy Blackstock pursued the Canadian Government for nine years through the Human Rights Tribunal for something which seemed obvious – that the government had been systematically discriminating against Indigenous children for years. The government spent over $8 million to try and prove they weren’t. One simply has to understand that the child welfare and education systems have their roots in the residential school history to see the discrimination, which is plainly before us.
WHAT OTHER FILMS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND PEOPLE WATCH IF THEY WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE EXPERIENCES OF INDIGENOUS CANADIANS?
PLENTY – there are many powerful Indigenous filmmakers in this country that TIFF programs. Check out ImagineNative Film Festival as well, and there are several festivals across the country to see some great work, such as MISPON in Regina. This year, I’m thinking particularly of the films of Gil Cardinal as he recently left us.
THIS FILM EXPOSED ONE AWFUL ASPECT OF THIS COUNTRY'S PAST. HOW DOES THE FUTURE LOOK TO YOU? WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
That is a massive question…
There’s a possible version of our future that might come from embracing the uncomfortable and difficult truths of our past, not rushing to solutions, and working alongside each other, with care and respect.
However, we have a colonial past, that is very much with us, now, in the present. The intent here for a long time was to keep Canada a white state. We have to face this racist history together, but non-Indigenous Canadians have to realize they’ve been sold a story about their country that is drastically incomplete, and to this day privileges their advancement at the expense of Indigenous peoples and people of colour. There is much more to uncover, and most importantly through listening to Indigenous people.
Racism is an enduring human problem, but maybe by knowing its particular faces that come from our history, we can more easily confront it in our present. But that takes the will of many.