Vandals wiping out Indigenous pictographs, researcher says

Pictographs, ancient images etched or painted onto stones across the country, are in danger of being wiped out by vandals, a Canadian researcher says.

Little protection for sacred images as long history of vandalism continues

A scratched pictograph on Lake Temagami. (Dagmara Zawadzka)

Pictographs, ancient images etched or painted onto stones across Canada, are in danger of being wiped out by vandals.

Sites in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have already been desecrated, says Dagmara Zawadzka, a researcher at the University de Montreal-Quebec.

Dagmara Zawadzka, a researcher at Universite du Québec à Montréal, says pictographs have been vandalized since Europeans' first contact in Canada. (Dagmara Zawadzka)

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

The damage, some of which can't be erased, amounts to a significant loss for both Canadian and Indigenous cultures, she said.

"We are talking about Indigenous heritage, oral traditions, cultural memory," Zawadzka said. "The sites are associated with sacred places, traditional territories, and traditional knowledge. They are living sites."

Rock art covered by graffiti at the Rocher à l'Oiseau site on the Ottawa River. (Dagmara Zawadzka)
Vandalized pictograph on a site near the French River. (Dagmara Zawadzka)

Up to now, the government hasn't allotted many resources to the protection of the sites, which are usually in open areas. Compounding the problem is that nobody, not even the researchers who specialize in pictograph sites, know how many sites exist.

"There may be three- to four thousand rock sites in Canada," Zawadzka said. "And the more accessible the location, the greater likelihood it will be vandalized."

"We can monitor sites that are in provincial or national parks," she said. "But there is no consistent program to monitor other sites. I would say hundreds are being vandalized."
Pictograph at Agawa Bay. This image was once vandalized, however the commercial paint is no longer visible. (Dagmara Zawadzka)

Long history of art, long history of vandalism

Vandalism of pictographs goes back to their first contact with Europeans, Zawadzka said.

"In the contact period up until 19th and 20th centuries, [pictographs] were seen as crude images," she said. "There was no respect for it. They were considered signs of superstition, as idols. Missionaries would be against it, as Indigenous spirituality."

"This is where we see the first record of premeditated vandalism," she said. "We have records of Jesuits actually destroying the sites. In the 17th century, there were Sulpecian priests travelling Lake Erie and they consecrated an axe and destroyed a site."

Fairy Point in Missinaibi Provincial Park. (Dagmara Zawadzka)

Not the first time vandals have struck

Isaac Murdoch, an Ojibwe from Serpent River First Nation, said the vandalism is causing tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

"They painted a huge Canadian flag, which we figure is about 10 x 125 [feet]," Murdoch said. "It's a pretty big flag. They painted it on top of a cliff. It's their symbol of nationhood, I guess."

The vandals covered up some pictographs which had been visible for years — a sight Murdoch said brought him to tears.

Isaac Murdoch is a well known Indigenous artist and activist in Canada. (Submitted)

"It was a treasure. Now it looks like a disaster, because of all the spray painting," he said. "The vibe around it all [has changed.] We feel like we're resisting something by going there. Before it would have been our sanctuary for life."

According to Murdoch, the OPP haven't the resources to monitor the sites, or investigate any damage to them. This needs to change, he said.

"When a  synagogue in Montreal is painted, a lot of resources and attention is paid to it," he said.

"Why are our sacred sites not afforded the [same] protection?"

Isaac Murdoch from Serpent River First Nation says the Canadian flag painted on a traditional pictograph site is an act of vandalism. (Isaac Murdoch)