Caring about Cultural Safety

You have probably heard that The Federation is offering cultural safety workshops to members. But what exactly do those workshops cover? What does cultural safety mean? Why should it be important for you and your agencies to undertake this work?

Cultural safety is about creating and supporting spaces that are more equitable, safe, and respectful of Indigenous people. For some people, this is not something they had ever considered for their agencies. That’s because colonialism, bureaucracy, capitalism, and white supremacy have turned Indigenous people into invisible citizens in our cities, organizations, and communities.

Cultural safety is intended to reduce the alienation of Indigenous peoples by ensuring that non-Indigenous folks understand the history of colonial violence, the systemic influences of racism towards Indigenous peoples, and the ways inequalities and biases within our systems and institutions have continued to marginalize and harm Indigenous peoples.

To create culturally safe spaces, these histories and inequalities and biases must be identified. The ongoing impact of colonialism must be examined and addressed—specifically, the structural racism and discrimination that occurs within communities, agencies, and government structures.

Child welfare legislation is one area familiar to many of us where we can start to examine our practices, our role in maintaining biased structures of power, and the effect these systems have on Indigenous people. For example, parental capacity assessments do not take into consideration the socio-economic barriers faced by Indigenous families. As a result of intergenerational trauma, racism, and the legacy of the Indian Act (among others) Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people don’t operate on a level playing field—they aren’t treated the same in society and don’t have access to the same opportunities. Yet, when it comes to these assessments, these inequities are not acknowledged.

Blind spots

This can be the most challenging part of this work. When I run my workshops, the hard part is not re-educating people about the real and uncomfortable truths about colonization and its ongoing effects. It is much more difficult to help people see their role within the institutions and systems that help perpetuate and maintain the harms of colonialization—for organizations to consider the ways we have internalized the oppressive systems of colonization, capitalism and white supremacy.

But this is a fundamental part of the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is not just an apology for harm done in the past. It is the intentional creation of new relationships based on mutual respect. And to do that we need to learn how to see the influence our culture has on ourselves, on others, and other cultures. We need to acknowledge that we have blind spots, and critically examine our biases and gaps in how we view the world around us.

It also requires us to develop an ongoing personal practice of critical self-reflection—looking at the systems we work within from different perspectives, considering how we may be complicit in maintaining them and being honest about our own power and privilege.

Do things differently

Increasing our understanding of Indigenous cultures and developing practical skills for interacting in respectful ways with people from different cultures is an important step that can increase people’s experiences of safety. We can recognize and strive to address the power imbalances inherent in our teams and programs and organizations and client relationships.

This doesn’t mean we have to become experts in Indigenous cultures and protocols. Rather, we have to take responsibility for reducing the extent to which we make assumptions about Indigenous people, doing things the way they have always been done, putting our comfort or ego before the safety of others, or acting as if our values and social norms are everyone’s values and norms. And there must also be a dedicated commitment to amending our policies and practices within our workplaces; we must be accountable for our actions and work toward changing things on a systems level as well.

For example, our organizations can start to hold meetings (space) in a circle. Using the Indigenous teaching of the circle provides an instant example of sharing perceived power. Everyone comes into the circle as equals—without titles or seniority or power—and sits shoulder to shoulder. It encourages people to speak to the centre rather than to or at each other. This can allow each person to bring more of themselves to the discussion and to participate in a more meaningful way without judgment or bias.

Our organizations could invite Indigenous people from our programs or our communities to take part in an equal and respectful dialogue about understanding different values or beliefs or how to be in relationship. We could ask Indigenous staff to share their thoughts and feelings about our organization’s process of working with Indigenous people and then make changes based on their feedback. We can critically review our work spaces from an Indigenous perspective. Do our spaces reflect Indigenous people or cultures? Or do our spaces look and feel institutional and ordered hierarchical? Can Indigenous people see themselves reflected in our work or communications or physical space through artwork, language, or values?

An easy first step in this process could be to review the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action and reflect on which calls to action our organizations can undertake. Initiate an open dialogue with the Indigenous people we work with or the people that we serve in our communities.

It’s on you (sorry)

Safety is something experienced, not something that is promised. What this means is that it is our responsibility, as service providers, to increase experiences of safety for our Indigenous clients, coworkers, and friends. It is not for us to define something as safe; it is defined by those who are impacted by our services.

I recognize that this work may seem daunting or exhausting. I know that being vulnerable is difficult. And I understand the shame of being perceived as ‘doing wrong’ or being part of maintaining harmful systems. But reconciliation won’t work if we all just wait for everyone else to do the hard work, to take the big first step, to find their blind spots while we keep ignoring ours.

Most of our organizations have made commitments to reconciliation. We want to become better people and better professionals. We want our organizations to be better. Live into that commitment. Ask yourself: Where is my organization on the continuum of cultural safety? What can we do better? What actions will make our spaces safer and more respectful? What am I learning and realizing in my self-reflection? What about my own behaviour or beliefs have I learned to see in a new light? How can I change my thinking? How can I change my practice?

If we can all start taking some of these steps together, our sector and our communities will be so much better off for it.

Riley McKenzie, Indigenous Advisor