As early as 1764, Sir William Johnson (Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Northern Department, within the Imperial government's Indian Department) proposed the appointment of agents at strategic points throughout the Indian territory. Agents, whose primary responsibility was the supervision of trade with the Indians, were appointed to serve at various interior posts. Throughout the period of conflict with the American Colonies, a network of Indian Department agents operated among the Indian population, encouraging their allegiance to the Crown and enlisting their aid in the fighting. Indeed, even after the formal end of hostilities, agents continued to operate from the Western Posts which the British did not finally abandon to the Americans until 1796.
With the arrival in Canada of loyal Indians and White settlers in the wake of the American Revolution and later with the withdrawal of the British from the Western Posts to Upper Canada came the need for a reorganization of the Indian Department. In 1796 resident superintendents were appointed for St. Joseph, Fort Malden, and Fort George (at the latter, replacing a superintendent to the Six Nations who had been appointed four years earlier). Over the next fifty years resident superintendents were appointed at a number of locations in Upper Canada to oversee government policy towards Indians within their particular areas.
One result of the investigations of the Bagot commission (1842-44) into the administration of Indian affairs, was the abolition of the resident superintendencies and their replacement by a system of visiting superintendents. The visiting superintendent was responsible for a number of bands in a relatively large area (e.g. the Central or Northern Superintendencies) or for a large concentration of Indians in one area (e.g. Six Nations Superintendency).
With the increasing complexity of the Indian administration after Confederation and a greater need for closer control in the field, the system of visiting superintendencies gave way in the 1870s and 1880s to one of Indian agencies in which smaller numbers of bands were administered by a resident agent. In Ontario there were initially two types of agents. Indian land agents, as the name suggests, were appointed to sell Indian lands which had been surrendered to the Crown. Although a regular Indian agent could also perform this function there were separate Indian land agencies established in areas of particularly busy sale activity. By the 1890s most of these offices had been amalgamated with the local Indian agencies although it was 1921 before the last Indian land agency, at Wiarton, was abolished.
The second and more prevalent office was that of the Indian agent, who 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 1951 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 counsellors, social workers, and financial advisors 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 favor 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. As a result of amalgamations, only four district offices (Sioux Lookout, Southern, Sudbury, and Western) and one sub-district office (Bruce) remained in Ontario by 1990.