For two centuries (1670-1871) the Hudson's Bay Company was the main link between the Native Peoples on the Canadian prairies and the British government. From 1670 on, the Crown regarded itself as the special protector of the Native Peoples, but the absence of a settled White population in the vast northwestern territory of British North America other than for the isolated men in the fur trading posts, meant that there was no need for agents of the Crown to control contact between two societies. In the absence of Crown agents, the Hudson's Bay Company with its extensive network of trading posts and connections with local bands supplying it with pelts, was entrusted by the Crown with the discretion of determining and supplying cases of need and hunger.
In a treaty dated 18 July 1817, the Chippewa or Saulteaux and the Killistine or Cree Indians surrendered a large tract of land in the Red River district of what later became Manitoba for the Selkirk settlement, in return for an annual payment, or annuity, of 100 pounds of tobacco to be delivered to each of these two nations. The Earl of Selkirk had already purchased the rights of the Hudson's Bay Company to this land in 1811, for the consideration of ten shillings and certain agreements and understandings contained in an indenture. In 1836 the Hudson's Bay Company bought back the whole tract from the heirs of the Earl of Selkirk for the sum of 84,000 pounds, with the rights of settlers who had purchased land between 1811 and 1836 being respected.
It was not until after Confederation that systematic treaties were made between the government of Canada and Native bands in western Canada. Beginning with Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 in 1871 (covering largely what is now southern Manitoba), local Native bands surrendered all claim to the lands on which they resided to the Crown and promised to obey the government's laws and to keep perpetual peace with it. In return, the Crown granted reserves to Native bands and promised various other treaty benefits, including such things as schools and annuities. There were refinements, with time, in later treaties. Treaty 3 (1873) and Treaty 4 (1874), for example, allowed Indians to hunt and fish over the entire tract they surrendered, and Treaty 7 (1877) quadrupled the size of family holdings to 640 acres.
The disappearance of the great buffalo herds on the prairies produced a famine crisis in 1879. This prompted the federal government to send immediate food aid, and to refine its administration and policy for Native Peoples in the then Northwest Territories. The reserve system developed in Ontario before Confederation was fully introduced to the prairies from 1880 on. It was expected to transform the Native bands from being dependent people whose traditional forms of subsistence had been destroyed to farmers living in self-sufficient agricultural communities. The hallmark of the reserve system was a strong centralized administration served by competent agents out in the field offices, and with inspectors traveling around to the field offices on regular tours of inspection.
Unlike Ontario, where there were initially two types of agencies, there was essentially only one type of general Indian agent when the system was introduced into Manitoba. The Indian agent carried out the responsibilities of the Indian Act at the band level. The powers of the Indian agent were extensive; until the 1951 revision of the Indian Act, an agent had almost complete control over the implementation of department policy at the local level. The l95l Indian Act, besides officially replacing the term "agent" with that of "superintendent", provided for the transfer of certain administrative powers to bands. Moreover, the establishment of regional offices in the provinces, the growth of large-scale social programs, and increases in the size and complexity of the bureaucracy at the national, regional, and local levels removed some of the agent's freedom to interpret policy. Specialists such as counselors, social workers, and financial advisers gradually took on tasks previously performed by the agent/superintendent. Despite changes in the role of the officer in charge in the field, however, the Indian agency remained the basic administrative unit of the field bureaucracy until the 1960s.
The creation of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1966 resulted in major reorganization of the field offices, some of which had remained little changed since the 1880s. Agencies were gradually amalgamated to form larger administrative units, districts, each headed by a superintendent. The rationale behind this change was that as Indian people took over more responsibility for their programs, local staff would be withdrawn in favour of specialists based at larger centres who could serve a number of bands. As more programs have devolved to band control, the number of district offices has decreased. By the early 1990s only three district offices remained, all in Saskatchewan.