Indian Agents

Rulers of the Reserves

by John L. Steckley (Author)
©2016 Monographs VI, 196 Pages


Canadians are beginning to learn about the negative effects of residential schools on Aboriginal people in Canada. More hidden in the written record, but bearing a similar powerfully destructive role, are Indian Agents, who were with very few exceptions White men who ‘ruled the reserves’ in Canada from the 1870s to the 1960s. This book is the first to present a discussion of Indian Agents in general. It provides an introductory look at the control Indian Agents exercised over Aboriginal communities throughout the period in question. The primary intent is to spark discussion in Indigenous studies courses.
This book is built upon a discussion of the lives and impact of five Indian Agents: Hayter Reed, William Morris Graham, John McIver, William Halliday, and Fred Hall. However, the practices and views of 39 other Indian Agents are interwoven throughout the text.
Although there was a readily detectable sameness in the way that Indian Agent power was imposed on Aboriginal communities based on the institutional racism of the Indian Agent System, one of the points to be made is that not all Indian Agents were the same. Some were more oppressive than others. Also frequently pointed out is the fact that Aboriginal peoples were not merely helpless victims to Indian Agent control, but resisted that control, sometimes successfully.
The book concludes with a chapter comparing the Indian Agent System in Canada, with similar systems in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: Hayter Reed: Iron Heart and Empty Stomachs
  • Chapter Three: John W. McIver: The Conniver
  • Chapter Four: William Morris Graham: The Colonizer
  • Chapter Five: William May Halliday: Prosecutor of the Potlatch
  • Chapter Six: Fred Hall: Walpole Island Throws the Indian Agent Out
  • Chapter Seven: Comparisons and Conclusions
  • Index of Indian Agents
  • General Index
  • Series index

← vi | 1 →




Introductory Quotations

What the People Say

Mohawk Frederick Ogilvie Loft (1861–1934), founder and first president of the League of Indians, we have the following statement, quoted in the Toronto Star Weekly, August 28, 1920:

If anything is responsible for the backwardness of the Indians today it is the domineering, dictating, vetoing method of the Indian Agent. (Loft 1920)1

Burton Jacobs (1911–2007), chief of the Walpole Island First Nation (Anishinaabe) when they became the first band to eliminate Indian Agents (see chapter six) wrote:

A story is told about an Indian agent who struck up a conversation with a stranger. The stranger asked the agent what sort of work he did, and the agent said: ‘I’m an Indian agent.’ The stranger replied: That’s interesting. What kind of products do you sell?’ The agent said: ‘I sell Indians.’ (Jacobs 2002: 141) ← 1 | 2 →

Terri Brown, former president of the Native Women’s Association, and current (2016) chief of the Tahltan First Nation:

Our history clearly depicts a time when the Indian Agent was all-powerful: The Indian Agent determined membership, allocation of resources and benefits, negotiation of land (actually there was no negotiation, it was blatant theft), and relocation (Brown 2002)

Distinguished scholar and recipient of the Order of Canada for her work researching and writing Aboriginal history, Métis Olive Dickason (1920–2011), wrote the following, referring to both Indian Agents and the farm instructors that worked for Indian Affairs in Western Canada:

Although there were exceptions, in general these men had little or no knowledge of Amerindians and little, if any, sympathy for them; they usually tried to enforce regulations by the book without consideration for particular situations. (Dickason 1992: 307)

Sympathetic Others

Robert Sinclair, publishing in a 1911 edition of The Canadian Indian, an early journal sympathetic to Aboriginal people:

There is hardly any matter that an Indian can undertake that is not dependent for its outcome on the whim of some official who probably has the most casual knowledge or no knowledge whatever of the circumstances to be considered. (Sinclair 1911, as quoted in Brownlie 2003: 29)

Historian Robin Brownlie in her enlightening work on two Indian Agents in Ontario, John Daly, who was the Agent for the Anishinaabe people of Parry Island or Wasauksing from 1922 to 1939, and Robert Lewis, who served the Manitowaning Agency on Manitoulin Island (also Anishinaabe) from 1915 to 1939.

The Indian agent system had a deep psychological impact on Aboriginal people, one that appears to be almost entirely negative. That impact is most starkly revealed in present-day comments on Indian agents, which uniformly depict these officials as agents of oppression, neglect, and injustice. What has remained, then, is the memory of a government-sponsored tyranny that deprived Aboriginal people of virtually all of their autonomy. (Brownlie 2003: x)

Unsympathetic Other

At a 1939 conference entitled “The North American Indian Today”, organized by the University of Toronto and Yale University, D. J. Allan, the Superintendent of ← 2 | 3 → Lands and Trusts for the Indian Affairs Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources, stated the following. And he wasn’t trying to be sarcastic:

[A] good [Indian] Agent is their [i.e., Indian peoples] guide, philosopher and friend” (“Indian Land Problems in Canada, in The North American Indian Today, eds., C. T. Loran and T. F. McIlwraith, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1943, p187, as quoted in Satzewich and Mahood 1995:45)

Introduction to the Players

This is a general introductory book about Indian Agents in Canada. Most of the stories told relate to five specific Indian Agents: William Morris Graham, Fred Hall, William May Halliday, John W. McIver and Hayter Reed. They were Indian Agents whose time frame stretches from 1881 to 1965, and whose territory of authority included reserves in three provinces: Saskatchewan, Ontario and British Columbia. Thirty-nine other Indian Agents are mentioned or discussed as well (see Index of Indian Agents).

Looking at the Annual Reports of the Department of Indian Affairs, you see that the Indian Agent network essentially began in 1873, with one Quebec Agency, and seven in Nova Scotia. By 1876, the system was extended west, with Manitoba and the Northwest Territories referring to the three Prairie Provinces. It can be said, then, that the system lasted for about 90 years.

Rulers of the Reserve

The sub-title of this book is “Rulers of the Reserve”. This relates to the tremendous power that Indian Agents wielded over the Aboriginal people living in reserves across the country. The following are some of those powers extended over varying periods of time. It should be pointed out that this is not intended to be by any means an exhaustive list, just an illustrative one.

Ten Things that Indian Agents Had the Power to Do at Various Times and at Various Places

1) Determine whether or not a status Indian could leave a reserve for any length of time (this applied primarily to the status Indians living in the Prairie Provinces)

2) Determine who belonged to the band (especially regarding children born out of wedlock) ← 3 | 4 →

3) Determine whether or not a status Indian could slaughter a pig or cow that he or she owned

4) Determine whether or not a status Indian could sell a pig or cow that he or she owned

5) Determine whether or not a status Indian could sell crops that he or she grew

6) Determine whether or not a status Indian could cut wood on band property on a reserve

7) Determine whether or not a proposal put forward by a band council (chief and councillors) could be put into effect (i.e., the power to veto band council proposals)


VI, 196
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. V, 195 pp.

Biographical notes

John L. Steckley (Author)

John L. Steckley received a B.A. in anthropology at York University, an M.A. in anthropology from Memorial University of Newfoundland, as well as an Ed.D. from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He taught at Humber College from 1986 to 2015. His primary area of research is Aboriginal studies, especially languages and history. Steckley has published 18 books, including White Lies about the Inuit and Learning from the Past: Five Cases of Aboriginal Justice. Some of his awards include the Robert F. Heizer Prize and the Ontario Archaeology Society’s 2014 Award for Excellence in Publishing.


Title: Indian Agents
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
204 pages