For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, First Nations people in Canada were treated as wards of the state (meaning they were placed in the care of the government) until such time as they were assimilated and enfranchised. Under the terms of the Indian Act, the decision-making rights and responsibilities of First Nations people were taken away and vested in the superintendent general of Indian Affairs (the federal government minister responsible for First Nations). To administer this policy, the Department of Indian Affairs employed Indian agents (occasionally called superintendents) to manage local affairs. By the 1960s, the role had been phased out as modern Indigenous governments began controlling their own affairs. (See also Indian.)
Profile of Indian Agents
In Eastern Canada, Indian agents were sometimes local individuals, such as missionaries or farmers, with an association to one particular First Nations band. But in Western Canada and Northern Ontario, the Department grouped First Nations reserves and bands geographically into Indian agencies and assigned an agent to the entire district. In the large agencies of Western Canada, the position of Indian agent is best understood as a mid-level administrative public service appointment. In 1900, these Indian agents were paid between $900 and $1,200 per year (roughly $20,000 to $27,000 in today’s dollars), depending upon the size of the agency. That amount was above the average salary for the era; the post was therefore a valuable patronage position for the government of the day.
A few Indian agents advanced to positions of authority within the Department of Indian Affairs. William Graham, appointed Indian agent for File Hills, Saskatchewan, in 1896, eventually became Indian commissioner for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from 1920 to 1932. Hayter Reed, appointed the Indian agent for Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1881, eventually served as deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs. Reed was also the creator of the pass system — a process by which Indigenous people had to present a travel document authorized by an Indian agent in order to leave and return to their reserves. Examples of agents advancing in the ranks are the exception, however. Many Indian agents served their entire career in the field.
Roles and Responsibilities
Indian agents were responsible for implementing the policies of the Department of Indian Affairs and keeping government officials informed of activities on reserves. Agents managed government resources and finances with regard to fulfilling the government’s statutory and treaty obligations to First Nations. They also directed and supervised agricultural activities on reserves. Additionally, agents managed the distribution of rations and farm supplies, and were empowered to pay annuities, inspect schools, negotiate the surrender of reserve lands, manage band finances and tender contracts for infrastructure projects on reserves.
Indian agents exercised authority over First Nations local government affairs. They conducted band council elections, recorded the results and presided over band council meetings. Indian agents made decisions regarding band members’ access to relief, housing, property or loans, and they occasionally counselled band members regarding marriages and enfranchisement. Indian agents were also called upon to provide information and advice to senior bureaucrats upon issues of significance, such as the management of First Nations hunting or fishing rights or leadership decisions within a band.
Many of the other roles and responsibilities of the Indian agents were related to the goal of assimilating First Nations people into broader Canadian society. The agents ensured children attended reserve or residential school and enforced bans on First Nation ceremonies and spirituality. Many Indian agents served as justices of the peace, entrusted with ruling over minor incidents of illegality involving First Nations people in the agency. Finally, the agents were responsible for recording demographic information, such as births, deaths and marriages. They also managed the estates of deceased band members.
Relations with Indigenous Peoples
Since Indian agents were the primary point of contact between the federal government, its colonial policy and First Nations people, the position is a source of great controversy. Indian agents were almost exclusively non-Indigenous men. It is not surprising that most of these men shared the values of the vast majority of Canadian society at the time with regard to the perceived superiority of modern Western culture. Some agents might have sympathized with the plight of First Nations people in their agency, but they rarely expressed doubts about the necessity or desirability of assimilation. Occasionally, Indian agents objected to the policies implemented by the Department of Indian Affairs. At risk of their employment, a few even thwarted certain aspects of Canadian government policy, such as the law prohibiting potlatches or policies designed to prevent the development of modern agriculture.
Generally, however, Indian agents treated First Nations people as wards of the state in need of government assistance and enforced oppressive federal polices such as a ban against butchering cattle (even during times of hunger) and the permit system that prevented First Nations from selling beef, grain, hay and timber without permission. On occasion, some agents pursued such policies with great zeal to the detriment of the First Nations people. The Indian agent, therefore, was particularly loathed by First Nations people. In the opinion of Cree elder Mervin Dieter (1914–73): “Possibly the best thing that could have happened to the Indian people is that if this person formerly known as the Indian Agent had never existed.”
The End of Indian Agents
The federal government started to eliminate the position of Indian agent in the 1960s. This was, in part, due to a rising of First Nations activism. The post-Second World War political organization of Indigenous peoples in Canada sought the abolishment of Indian agents, as well as rights recognition and self-determination. Additionally, in 1966, the federal government restructured the Indian affairs department — then known as Indian Affairs and Northern Development — to make way for a new administrative structure.