Cultural Sensitivity


“Cultural Sensitivity” second sermon on a First Nations theme.  Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, Oct. 11, 2015

An audio version can be found at

A few years ago I was a guest of the UU’s of North East India at their 125th anniversary celebrations.  I arrived at my hotel in Shillong, a city so remote that most of the residents aren’t even ethnically Indian.  I was left to my own devices for the better part of a day and wandered the streets.  In a major outdoor market I turned in a slow 360 degree circle and realized I was the only white face in the thousand or so I could see.  It was disconcerting.  I  had no cultural references.  I did not know what was safe to eat or drink, what was expected in the way of bargaining for a purchase, whether or not it was dangerous to walk through a narrow alley.  Were I to get sick I wouldn’t know how to find a doctor nor how I would be treated.  I didn’t feel unsafe, exactly, but I did not feel safe either.

Have you ever been in a situation like that?  I suspect that’s why cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts have become so popular: they allow developed world types us to travel to faraway places while letting us stay within the cultural cocoon that makes us comfortable.  We don’t have to be competent in understanding the peoples we are visiting. We can relax and still be tourists. We have a feeling of cultural safety.

The thing is, we can’t be tourists in our own country, and there are other cultures that dwell among us.  We have an obligation to tend to their safety.  Indeed there is a collection of cultures that were here and thriving long before the first Europeans arrived.  Unless we wish to be imperialists or worse, we have to learn to live well alongside these cultures. That takes cultural competence – a willingness to understand the ways of our neighbours and a willingness to respect their culture.

As we consider what it is like to live well in a First Nations land this month, the idea of cultural competence becomes critically important.  But I want to add another concept Caroline Foster-Boucher introduced me to this week, a concept that originated in her field of nursing education in the 1980’s.  It is cultural safety.

But let’s start with competence.

Last February the UU ministers of western Canada met in retreat.  We spent a day working with a First Nations educator named Wedlidi Speck.  He introduced us to the idea of cultural competence.

Simply put, cultural competence is about becoming aware that other cultures are intrinsically different from our own.  How do First Nations people broadly understand government? and the Canadian government in particular?  or religion? or history? or education?  Do they have values that are different from ours?  In what ways? Are we getting caught up in our cultural assumptions? Are those assumptions blocking us from treating our fellow Canadians respectfully?

Becoming culturally competent means dumping the idea that OUR way is the right way and that other ways are somehow lacking.  It means being willing to respectfully ask about those other ways and to look for what is good and useful.  It means participating in the activities of those cultures when we can and gaining insight from them.

Of course immersion in such subjects would take almost a lifetime of study to master.  I don’t have that kind of time.  I doubt any of you do either.  So perhaps an easier way of starting to increase our cultural competence is to define what we of the dominant or a different minority culture do not know about native tradition.  The safest assumption is that we know pretty much nothing.  And the safest way forward is to ask someone who does…and here I am not really including the Department of Indian Affairs.

When we embark on an attempt to increase our cultural competence we will have far more questions than answers…always!  But that can be a pretty cool place unless you are the sort of person that needs an absolute answer.  I am blessed to not have that need.  I rather like living with questions floating in the ether.

But even adopting the very simple starting point that First Nations cultures are different from mine will change you.

When you choose to live with open questions, then you will read or see news stories differently and more discerningly.  A few years ago the philosopher John Ralston Saul wrote an interesting book called A Fair Country.  He noted that our federal government gets frustrated in their negotiations because they want a final agreement on native issues.  Done and dusted.  Using our democratic tradition we think 50+1 is enough to justify a final decision.

The thing is, as my grade 7 daughter will be happy to tell you, a lot of native cultures are built on a consensus model of democracy.  That’s messy and slow and never really finished. Saul noted that fact. There is a long tradition of regular renegotiation of agreements within native history that goes back to before the fur trading days. Tribes and nations would meet in places like the area we now call Walterdale to exchange trade goods, discuss territorial boundaries, make marriages and so on.  It was an annual event, an ongoing conversation a kind of family reunion.  The concept of settling something once and for all was foreign to their culture.

So, just considering that aspect of aboriginal tradition,  examine any news story about seemingly endless negotiations about oil exploration and environmental concerns on traditional lands and the slowness of the conversation begins to make sense.  By asking “What’s behind this situation?” instead of jumping to a conclusion because the First Nations folks don’t do it the way our government expects is a step towards cultural competence.  And you will soon discover how deeply – if inadvertently – biased our media is against First Nations worldviews.

In some areas dominant society has made some progress. Last week I spoke of how the acknowledgement of meeting on Treaty Six land is an important statement of respect.  We read of sweat lodges in prisons, along with Elders as chaplains.  Even Fort Edmonton is greatly expanding the presence of First Nation history in their park. We often see smudging and prayer ceremonies at public events.  School programs from K through university now include curriculum about First Nations people actually written by First Nations people. That’s why my daughters can tell you about the consensus model used by the Iroquois confederacy. And there is the Amiskwaciy Academy high school providing education in an Aboriginal environment. Slowly the opportunities to increase our cultural competence are growing.

And alongside this we are seeing some progress in the status of first nations people.  This week the Vital Signs report was published by the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Social Planning Council.  It’s an annual check-up on some aspect of life in our city.  This year they looked at the Urban Aboriginal population.

There are some hopeful signs of progress:

Edmonton has the second largest urban aboriginal population after Winnipeg and that is expected to grow significantly from its current 5.4% share.

High School completion rates by age 25 have grown from 62% in 2001 to 75% by 2011.

The rate of getting a post-secondary certificates, degrees and diplomas has grown from 39% in 2001 to 52% by 2011.

On the other side, you are 9 times more likely to be homeless if you are an aboriginal and at 22.5% the number of First Nations people living in poverty doubles all other categories of Edmontonians.  Lots of work left to do.

Still, when you consider that the last residential school in Alberta only closed in 1975 we have to acknowledge some progress even if it is painfully slow.  I take these numbers more as a for hope than a sign of success.

All of this provides opportunities for people to increase their cultural competence if they are willing to open to themselves to thinking differently, to laying aside biases and habitual assumptions that have been with the ruling culture for generations.

But as Caroline Foster-Boucher taught me, that’s only half the battle.  An even more important step is creating a sense of cultural safety for our first nations citizens.  Remember how I began by speaking about how out of place I felt in India?  Well many First Nations people feel that way here in the land where they were born.  Many feel unsafe.

Cultural safety is a term that comes to us from nursing education- Caroline’s field.  It was an idea first articulated among the Maori in New Zealand.

A Carleton University study describes cultural safety in nursing as follows

The current definition of cultural safety is the effective nursing practice of a person or family/ whanau from another culture, and is determined by that person or family. Culture includes, but is not restricted to, age or generation; gender; sexual orientation; occupation and socio-economic status; ethnic origin or migrant experience; religious or spiritual beliefs; and disability.

The nurse/midwife delivering the nursing/ midwifery service will have undertaken a process of reflection on his/her cultural identity and will recognize the impact that his/her personal culture has on his/her professional practice. Unsafe cultural practice comprises any action which diminishes, demeans or disempowers the cultural identity and wellbeing of an individual.

One author calls accepting the concept of cultural safety a ‘paradigm shift’, where the movement from cultural competence to cultural safety is not merely another step on a linear continuum, but rather a more dramatic change of approach…

(Cultural safety) implies the reversal of cultural danger or peril, where individuals and communities may be at risk or in crisis….through cultural safety, the power of cultural symbols, practices and beliefs extends political power to the Aboriginal people. Cultural safety is not just a process of improving program delivery; it is also part of the outcome.

I’m going to move away from First Nations for just a moment to offer an example from this week of someone not grasping the significance of cultural safety.  In Tuesday’s Journal, Fr. Anthony Hysell presented a thoughtful but controversial article supporting the Catholic church’s view on transgender issues.

His basic premise was that Catholic doctrine teaches that God’s love extends to all human beings no matter what. As an aside he also argued that Gay Straight Alliances were therefore not really necessary because the Catholic school system follows that doctrine and therefore “foster(s) an environment reflecting the truth of the human person.”

You may recall that last year I became quite vexed about this stand by my former church and campaigned for change.

I bring it up because it perfectly outlines the need to move from cultural competence to cultural safety.  It may well be that Fr. Hysell has a deep and loving appreciation for LGBTQ people.  He may have a great degree of cultural competence.  But in the Catholic Church he is the representative of dominant culture.  Just because he and his brothers say, “we love and accept you,” does not translate into a feeling of being loved and accepted by the LGBTQ kids.  Only they get to determine what feels safe.  Only they should have a voice in saying whether or not they need a GSA.That’s the critical piece in cultural safety. It’s defined by those without power, not those who have it.

And this is what has been missing in the history of Canadian/ First Nations negotiations over the decades.  The dominant culture has failed often to ask what is needed, or if they have asked, they failed to listen deeply.  They have come back with what they thought would suit the need rather than what was requested.  They have seldom given the First Nations people the right to decide much of anything outside of Reserve lands.  And what has been given has been given without respect for the traditions of the people being served.  Each time it happened, it reinforced the ‘one down’ place of aboriginal peoples.  It made many of these people feel less safe in their own lands.

And a generation of governments have wondered why their policies have not succeeded and what’s wrong with those people.

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and the UN Declaration of Human Rights come down on the side of cultural safety.

We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  That means we have to be willing to listen and truly see those different from us fully as people coequal to us regardless of power.

We affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  Sure follow the law, but create laws that are fair and compassionate.  We have not seen much compassion from our lawmakers in the last decade.

And we affirm respect for one another and for each other’s spiritual values for those values space our worldview and impact our feelings of safety.

These are Principles that support the ideas of cultural competence and cultural safety.  Let us learn them and practice them.