The Many Fingers of the Indian Agents

Posted on February 23, 2011


Under Canada’s various Indian Acts, there was once and for a very long time the position on the Indian Superintendent, or, as he was more generally known, the Indian Agent.  The Indian Agent represented the Indian Act and the law in general to the Aboriginal people he had jurisdiction over.

The Indian Agent had many fingers.  Enough for every pie.

The powers of the Indian agent were described in a government funded report from 1958:

[T]he superintendent deals with property and with records, or with the recording of property.  He registers births, deaths and marriages.  He administers the band’s funds.  He supervises business dealings with regard to band property.  He holds band elections and records the results.  He interviews people who want irrigation systems, who complain about land encroachments, who are applicants for loans.  He suggests to others that, if they are in a common-law relationship, they should get married, for, among other reasons, this simplifies the records.  He obtains information about persons applying for enfranchisement.  He adjusts the property of bands when members transfer.  He deals with the estates of deceased Indians.  He obtains the advice of the engineering officers on irrigation systems, and the building of schools.  He negotiates the surrender of lands for highways and other public purposes.  He applies for funds to re-house the needy and provide relief for the indigent.  He draws the attention of magistrates to factors which bear upon Indians standing trial on criminal charges. (p.486)


H.B. Hawthorn, C.S. Belshaw, and S.M. Jamieson, The Indians of British Columbia: A Study of Contemporary Social Adjustment, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1958.

To the above list of duties and powers, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: 9.11) adds,

justice of the peace duties … the power of inspecting schools and health conditions on reserves, presiding over band council meetings and, later, voting to break a tie.  In addition, … the agents were also responsible for encouraging Indians to enlist in the armed forces during the wars and for keeping lists of those enlisted for purposes of administering veterans’ benefits after the wars.

Beginning with the Walpole Island Band in Ontario in the 1960s, Indian agents started to be kicked out of reserves.  The position no longer exists.  While it did exist, the agents were all-powerful and answerable to virtually nobody.

You can expect that abuses did happen.