There was another form of education envisioned for Native people that would eventually prove to be almost as controversial. Missionaries and others interested in Native affairs had long promoted the idea of teaching Native peoples to farm. Not only did many Canadians see agriculture as the structural support of civilization, but policy-makers believed it would replace the indigenous economies that Native peoples had lost when they moved to reserves, permitting them to become self-sufficient. Hence officials built references to agricultural support programs into the numbered treaties and promoted agriculture in regions where there were no treaties. But how that policy actually played out on the Prairie reserves was a curious story indeed.
Bands across the Prairies scarcely agreed with the rhetoric of the "civilization" program, but they could see the value in developing an agricultural economy now that the bison herds had been almost eliminated and other resource bases greatly restricted. Many set out enthusiastically to learn about planting, harvesting, and livestock techniques and called for the government to live up to its treaty promises of assistance. Unfortunately, the first few years of the program after 1874 were not very successful because of a series of droughts and early frosts for which Eastern farm knowledge was completely unprepared. Instead of recognizing the real problem, however, Indian Affairs officials concluded that it was the fault of Native peoples: they were, according to this line of thought, too "primitive" to make such a major transition.
In amendments to the Indian Act in the early 1880s, the government imposed a permit system to control the sale of Native agricultural products. The official rationale was that this system would prevent Natives from being swindled by others, but it also prevented the exchange of produce for goods not approved of by the Indian agents. The practice also indicated government intolerance of the idea of Natives selling produce while they were receiving government-supplied rations. Adoption of these regulations may also have reflected complaints of unfair competition made by non-Native farmers who objected to the government assistance that reserves received.
Whatever the protective functions such measures may have had, in the hands of officials, the permit system became yet another tool of coercion and it furthered the policy, popular in the Indian Department and especially with Deputy Superintendent Hayter Reed, of transforming the Natives into "peasant farmers." The practical impact was to impede those Natives who were inclined to farm for profit. The amendment contributed to the perception that Natives were less efficient and discouraged them from trying to be successful. The amendment was retained and expanded in subsequent versions of the Indian Act and was extended in 1941 to include the sale of furs and wild animals. The provision on the sale of agricultural products without official permission remains part of the Indian Act, although it is no longer enforced.
Historian Sarah Carter has argued that, ironically, government policy itself led to the failure of the agricultural program on the Prairie reserves after 1885. Complaints from non-Native settlers that the Native farmers provided unfair competition because of government assistance led to reductions in that assistance; an amendment to The Indian Act made it illegal for Native peoples on the Prairies to sell their produce off-reserve. Without a market for their produce, Native farmers could not hope to develop a sustainable agricultural economy. They were further disadvantaged by the size of their farms. While non-Native farmers worked homesteads of at least 160 acres (about 43 hectares), officials encouraged Native farmers to work tiny plots of less than a hectare. As off-reserve agriculture became increasingly mechanized, officials told reserve farmers to sow by hand and process the harvest with tools like scythes and flails. Unable to develop even subsistence agriculture under these restrictions, Prairie Native communities gradually abandoned the experiment. The reserves became islands of poverty in the rising tide of Western development in the boom years of the early twentieth century.
Problems with the new agricultural economy were not the only dilemmas that Prairie Native communities were facing by the early twentieth century. The process of selecting and surveying lands promised under the treaties was not going smoothly. Under the terms of the treaties, the amount of land to be designated for the reserves was to be based on a population count, but, from the beginning, there were disagreements over the numbers of people entitled to be registered. There were also problems with inaccurate surveys, disagreements over the location of reserve boundaries, and cases in which some bands were left out of the process entirely. As more non-Native settlers arrived in the Prairies through the late 1890s, pressures mounted for access to some of the best reserve lands and acreages were removed from a number of reserves under highly controversial circumstances. The government made no serious attempt to address these problems until the late twentieth century, a point that will be discussed later in the article.