Early government policy for First Nations in Saskatchewan was administered under the Indian Act, with the goal of training First Nations people to become farmers and assimilating them into the greater Canadian society. Through the Indian Act and an assimilationist policy based on social Darwinism, attempts were made to dispossess First Nations of their land and identity: the rationale behind the reserve system was to place them on pieces of land isolated from white settlement, where policies could be more easily applied and monitored. Once reserves had been selected and surveyed, Indian agents were sent to administer them; they had sweeping powers ranging from control of First Nations’ movement to control of agricultural equipment and expenditures by the band.
The most restrictive policies and legislation came after the events of the 1885 North-West Resistance, when the government of Canada concentrated its efforts on breaking up the tribal system and assimilating First Nations people. Three officials were most prominent in the development and implementation of Indian policy: Sir John A. Macdonald, Edgar Dewdney, and Hayter Reed. After the events of 1885 Hayter Reed, then Assistant Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, drafted a lengthy “Memorandum on the Future Management of Indians,” which would become a template for Indian policy in Saskatchewan; it was approved by Dewdney as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and by Macdonald as Prime Minster and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Reed promoted a “peasant farming” approach, central to which were the pass, permit, and Birtle system, and severalty.
The pass system was at first to be issued only to “Rebel Indians”; however, Macdonald insisted that the system should be applied to all First Nations. In early 1886, books of passes were issued to Indian agents, and subsequently First Nations people could not leave their reserve unless they had a pass signed by the Indian agent and describing when they could leave, where they could go, and when they had to return. The pass system, however, was never passed into legislation and as a result was never legal—although it was enforced well into the 1940s.
The permit system was instituted to control the selling and buying of goods by First Nations people. If a First Nations farmer wanted to sell any produce, he had to secure a permit signed by the Indian agent. In a similar fashion, if non-First Nations people wanted to come onto the reserve to sell goods, they also had to obtain a permit from the agent.
The Birtle system was a cattle loan program whereby a First Nations farmer would be given a cow: at the end of a year, he had to return either the cow or its offspring. The belief was that if an Indian person had a vested interest in an animal, success would be more likely; however, the system failed owing to the lack of any real control by First Nations over their stock.
The severalty or subdivision of reserve land was also central to the peasant farming policy. Beginning in 1889, Indian reserves were to be divided approximately in two: one-half would be surveyed into 40-acre lots upon which individual families were to farm; the other half was to be held in common as hay and timber land. Reed’s belief was that an Indian farmer was to become self-sufficient, but was not to compete in the marketplace. The pass and permit systems, as well as severalty, restricted how successful Indian farmers could be and ultimately contributed to the failure of agriculture on First Nations reserves.