Canada has a reputation for being a country of epic natural beauty. From the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia and Alberta to the wild waterfalls of Ontario, there is no shortage of stunning nature hotspots across the country.
But while tourists to Canada have heard plenty about Mounties and maple syrup, many people — including quite a few Canadians — don’t know much about the rich, diverse history of the country’s Indigenous people.
Canada is home to some of the earliest known sites of human habitation in North America, and the country has an abundance of important historic places where visitors can learn more about Indigenous heritage and culture.
Since it’s Canada Day this weekend, we’re highlighting ten places across Canada where you can explore First Nations history.
Whether you’re planning your first trip to Canada or searching for the next destination of your #CanadianStaycation, these interesting sites of historical importance and natural beauty are sure to capture your imagination.
1. French River Provincial Park, Ontario
Though now associated with 17th-century French explorers, the French River was a major transportation route for Indigenous peoples such as the Shield Archaic, Algonquian, Huron, and Ojibwe, for thousands of year.
The waterway along the river features many pictographs and important archaeological sites. Visitors can delve into the rich history of Indigenous, French, and English cultures that shaped the area at the award-winning French River Visitor Centre.
2. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
For almost 6,000 years, Blackfoot hunters surrounded buffalo herds at their grazing grounds in the Porcupine Hills, gathered the animals into lanes lined with hundreds of stone cairns, and drove them at full speed toward the “jump” — a cliff about 328 yards (300 m) long and over 33 feet (10 m) high.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the world’s oldest, largest, and best-preserved jump sites. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and boasts a $10-million interpretive centre.
3. Broken Group Islands, BC
The Broken Group Islands, part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, is an archipelago of over 100 islands with white sand beaches, rocky shores, a diverse array of wildlife, and a rich Indigenous history. Benson Island, also known as C’isaa, is the birthplace of the Tseshaht Nation, who first inhabited the island 5,000 years ago.
C’isaa has an interpretive display about Tseshaht culture and features a traditionally carved house post. Visitors can also meet the “beachkeepers” who maintain the area, welcome visitors, and continue the legacy of the Tsehaht peoples.
4. Bon Echo Provincial Park & Mazinaw Rock, Ontario
Bon Echo Provincial Park is home to Mazinaw Lake, the second-deepest lake in Ontario, excluding the Great Lakes. It is here that Mazinaw Rock’s cliffs rise 330 feet (100 m) from the lake’s surface and where, hundreds of years ago, ancestors of the Algonquin people etched over 250 images on 65 rock surfaces using red ochre.
These ancient pictographs represent human and animal figures and include abstract and geometric designs and are thought to be the oldest on the Canadian Shield
5. Bighorn Backcountry — David Thompson Country, Alberta
Just east of Banff and Jasper National Parks is Bighorn Backcountry, a collection of twelve Public Land Use Zones that is home to stunning mountain scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and some important First Nations heritage.
For thousands of years, First Nations people used the area, which they considered a sacred place, for winter camping. Visitors can see the remains of sweat lodges and prayer sites. These delicate structures should be respected, and visitors should not remove or touch artifacts.
6. World’s Tallest Totem Pole, British Columbia
Located on the outskirts of the Nimpkish Reserve at Alert Bay, on the northern end of Cormorant Island, the world’s tallest totem pole reaches skyward to a height of nearly 173 feet (53 m). The main figures carved on this pole represent tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation.
Alert Bay retains some of the world’s finest Indigenous artifacts, art, and totem poles. Visitors to the area can also see traditional memorial poles at the town’s Nimpkish (or Namgis) burial grounds and visit the U’mista Cultural Centre.
7. Baffin Island, Nunavut
Baffin Island is the largest island in Canada and the fifth-largest island in the world. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the island for millennia, with evidence of Pre-Dorset culture dating back 4,000 years. While the western side of the island is largely tundra, the eastern side has snow-capped mountains, some of which stand more than 8,000 feet (2,440 m).
Most of the island’s inhabitants are Inuit and live near the coastal trading posts. Visitors can still see many inukshuks around the island. Inukshuk means “in the image of a person” in the Inuktitut language, and they were traditionally created to provide directions for travellers or hunters, warn them of danger, or mark sacred sites.
8. Petroglyphs Provincial Park & National Historic Site, Ontario
Petroglyphs Provincial Park contains the largest known concentration of First Nations petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Canada, with over 1,200 images carved between 900 and 1100 AD by Algonquian- or Iroquian-speaking people.
Known as Kinomagewapkong or “the Teaching Rocks” by the area’s Ojibwe people, the carvings depict symbolic shapes, human figures, animals such as birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish, and supernatural creatures. Deep crevices in the rocks of the park are thought to lead to the spirit world, and the trickle of water that runs beneath the rock produces sounds that have been interpreted as those of the Spirits.
9. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park — Áísínai’pi National Historic Site, Alberta
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to the largest concentration of petroglyphs on the North American Plains. Petroglyphs and pictographs (rock paintings) are part of an ancient tradition of Indigenous rock art, and some of the earliest art at Writing-on-Stone may be 5,000 years old. According to Blackfoot legend, this rock art comes from the spirit world.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people camped in the area for at least 3,500 years. The petroglyphs left behind were made by using pieces of bone, horn, or rock to gouge images into the sandstone. The pictographs were painted using ochre, a mixture of crushed iron ore and animal fat that produced red, yellow, and orange colours.
10. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, British Columbia
According to Haida legend, Gwaii Haanas is the place where time began. Gwaii Haanas, which means “islands of the people”, is the Haida name for the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago of 1,884 islands located off the northwest coast of British Columbia and often called the “Galapagos of the north”, as there are 39 subspecies of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The surrounding ocean teems with salmon, herring, halibut, mussels, crab, starfish, sea urchin, and octopus, as well as orcas, grey, humpback, and minke whales, dolphins, porpoises, and harbour seals.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve includes the ancient and now abandoned Haida village of Ninstints on Anthony Island. The population of this and other villages was decimated in the 1800s by foreign diseases spread by fur traders. Weathered and decaying totem poles watch over this UNESCO World Heritage Site.