Indigenous Pictographs in Canada Being Vandalized

Courtesy Isaac Murdoch / A Canadian flag was painted near the pictograph site at Matinenda Provincial Park.

Rick Kearns

Numerous sacred sites containing indigenous pictographs or petroforms have been vandalized

Vandals are destroying ancient indigenous pictographs throughout Canada at an alarming rate and activists are trying to call attention to the desecration and its consequences.

As of late July vandals had defaced, and in some cases destroyed, indigenous pictographs in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia and Montreal in the last six years including some recent dramatic incidents.

One of the activists seeking protection of the rock art is Dagmara Zawadzka, a researcher at the University of Montreal-Quebec who has studied Canadian shield rock art and its place within the cultural landscape of Algonquian-speaking peoples. She is currently working on a PhD in Art History.

Zawadzka spoke recently about the vandalism problem and the further ramifications for indigenous people.

“[Vandals are] scratching up the images, spray painting over the images with names, dates,” she told CBC News. “There has even been attempts at removing rock, trying to chisel off rock surface, and shooting at the sites.”

Zawazda documented some recent vandalism such as rock art covered by graffiti at the Rocher a l’Oiseau site on the Ottawa River and a vandalized pictograph on a site near the French River.

“We are talking about indigenous heritage, oral traditions, cultural memory,” she told CBC. “The sites are associated with sacred places, traditional territories, and traditional knowledge. They are living sites.”

Zawadzka estimated that there could be 3,000 to 4,000 rock art sites in Canada, some of them very accessible and therefore more easily vandalized.

She noted that sites located not in provincial or national parks are not monitored in a consistent way and she estimated that “hundreds are being vandalized.”

While the vandalism has been happening for centuries, recent incidents in Canada have made headlines.

In late June an ancient petroform, an arrangement of rocks that creates an outline of an animal or other shape, was destroyed in the Bannock Point site in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Park. According to Manitoba’s Parks and Protected Spaces, the Bannock Point site is sacred and is still used for ceremonies by First Nations people.

Anishinaabekwe educator and tour guide Diane Maytwayashing discovered the vandalism when leading a tour to the Bannock Point site.

They discovered that the petroform that had been arranged in the shape of a snake was altered and changed into something else.

“I felt my heart fall to my stomach. It was really horrible,” Maytwayashing told CBC News.

Maytwayashing hopes to arrange for volunteer security to monitor the site and that she and Anishinaabekwe elders want to end public access to the site.

According to press reports the Manitoba government was investigating the incident but had not published their results as of press time.

Yet another act of vandalism had been noted earlier in June at another site where ceremonies are still being held.

Vandals sprayed graffiti on and around indigenous pictographs, ancient rock drawings, in Matinenda Provincial Park in Ontario and local activists and leaders responded in various reports.

Isaac Murdoch, an Anishinaabe storyteller, traditional knowledge holder and artist, said there had been 100 of the pictographs visible up until several years ago.

“It is one of the most prolific pictographs that we probably had on the Great Lakes,” he told CBC News.

Murdoch added that after his last visit in mid June, he saw only five pictographs that remained unaltered by graffiti.

Chief Reg Niganobe of the Mississauga First Nation noted that the pictographs in the park are sacred and part of their history.

“They don’t regard the sacredness of it like we do; those are our ancient stories,” he told CBC. He also said the Mississauga First Nation will be meeting with the Ministry of Natural Resources in late August to discuss a plan for protection of the site.

“We want to increase awareness of the site so that people who cottage or live on the lake might be able to identify or prevent vandals in the future,” Chief Niganobe told ICMN. “We’d also like to see displays and corresponding stories to explain the pictographs along with removal of paint which currently covers them, continued maintenance of the site, and laws increased to protect these important historical artifacts.”