Talk of safety conjures its opposites: danger, risk, injury. And this is precisely what the term cultural safety signals: the possibility that some people who seek help from service agencies feel safe and accepted as who they are in terms of their cultural identity and behaviours, while others feel that their cultural identity or behaviours have been disregarded, challenged or harmed as a result of their encounters with health care providers and services. Unlike the linked concepts of cultural sensitivity or cultural competence, which may contribute to a service recipient's experiences, cultural safety is an outcome. Regardless of how culturally sensitive, attuned or informed we think we have been as a service provider, the concept of cultural safety asks: How safe did the service recipient experience a service encounter in terms of being respected and assisted in having their cultural location, values, and preferences taken into account in the service encounter?
Many people who have been minoritized (e.g., Indigenous, small ethnolinguistic and religious groups) have experienced their cultural identity, beliefs, and lifestyles denigrated by service practitioners who are part of dominant cultural, linguistic or religious groups. These practitioners might include doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, clergy and others. Another, more subtle, experience of cultural 'un-safety' can occur when a person is asked to present oneself for a service (e.g., traveling to a hospital in a nearby town, meeting a school principal) or to participate in a program of care (e.g., entering a substance use treatment program, moving to a long-term care facility). For many people, this entails crossing cultural borders, to the foreign culture of an mainstream institution, or to a social group composed of people from cultures other than one's own. The sense of risk in cross-cultural encounters, especially when one is part of a culture that has long been the object of social injustice (e.g., discrimination, racism, workplace exclusion, etc.) can be mitigated by being accompanied – for example, by an advocate, navigator, or case worker. This support can provide cultural orientation and mediation both for the service recipient and for the service practitioner.
Indicators of Cultural Un-safety
Are there guidelines for practice that will increase the likelihood that people who seek help will experience the service setting, encounter, and outcomes as culturally safe? Research undertaken in the Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships Program at the University of Victoria's School of Child and Youth Care has helped to shed light on this question. Findings of several projects involving partnerships with First Nations communities have led to the formulation of several principles.
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Five Principles to Engender Cultural Safety
Practicing these principles can increase the likelihood that a person seeking help will feel respected, included, and protected in terms of their cultural identity, cherished values and goals.