After the Northwest Resistance of 1885, three Canadian officials put forward a proposal for a system of racial segregation – whites from First Nations – to their Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who enthusiastically approves, declaring: “…it is in the highest degree desirable to adopt it.” From then on, and for over 60 years, permits to leave reserve would only be issued at the pleasure of an Indian Agent. From day one, the Canadian government knew this segregationist pass system had no legal basis.

The Pass System is a result of a five year investigation involving extensive, pan-Canadian archival research and elders’ oral history testimony, revealing a system that appears to be much more widespread than previously thought. Cree, Saulteaux, Dene, Ojibwe and Blackfoot Elders from Treaty areas 4, 6 & 7 (Saskatchewan & Alberta), tell stories of living under and resisting the system. Leading historians and scholars such as Winona Wheeler, Sarah Carter, J.R. Miller, Brian Titley, Shauneen Pete, and the film’s Historical Consultant John S. Milloy, provide key context essential to understanding the system’s many impacts that reverberate to this day.

Narrated by legendary actor and activist, Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall), The Pass System features haunting music by Juno-nominated Cree/Mennonite Composer Cris Derksen.

Director, Producer, Cinematographer and Writer Alex Williams is the driving force behind the film’s research and production. Raised in Saskatoon in Treaty 6, Alex found the subject essential to understanding societal divides and inequities that persist to this day. When it appeared that the government had destroyed many documents relating to the system, there was no turning back.

Filmmaker, Journalist and Historian James Cullingham, producer of films on related subjects, brought Tamarack Productions’ considerable experience and expertise to the production in his role as Executive Producer.

The Pass System was made with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council the Toronto Arts Council, many artist-run media arts centres across the country, as well as many community supporters, and was produced in association with Tamarack Productions.

The film has been touring extensively across Canada and consulting with communities both inside and outside the areas known to be impacted by the pass system. Emerging from these screenings and panel discussions is a picture of a system more extensive than the film depicts. It is as yet unknown how many communities were affected by mobility controls by the Canadian state.


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Alex Williams is a Toronto-based multi-disciplinary artist, working in documentary and narrative film, theatre, and still photography. Alex holds a B.F.A. from Emily Carr University in Film, and is currently an MFA candidate in film production at York University. He is President of the artist-run centre Charles Street Video, and sits on the Boards of the Toronto Media Arts Centre and Indigenous Theatre Company Article 11. He is a member of Canadian Actor’s Equity Association and an instructor at the National Theatre School of Canada. Raised in Saskatoon in Treaty 6 territory, Alex began research on the pass system six years ago. He was recently a visiting scholar at the University of Saskatchewan through the Indigenous Studies Department to present The Pass System in communities throughout Treaty 4 and 6 to further research and engage in discussions about the film and its findings.