Ask the expert: Cultural safety with Kathi Hemphill Camilleri

Kathi Camerilleri - Cultural safety

On June 7, 2021, CEO Veronica Carroll was joined by Kathi Hemphill Camilleri, Cultural Safety Consultant, for episode 3 of “From the Heart: Small talk on big subjects”; a conversation about cultural safety. This blog post complements that episode.

Trigger warning: The topic of residential schools is discussed in the following content. Please have a self-care plan in place. If you require emotional support or assistance, you may contact the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free at 1 (800) 721-0066 or 24-hour Crisis Line at 1 (866) 925-4419.

How did you get started in running your cultural safety workshops?

I’ve been doing this work for a very long time. I started by writing stories and my favourite to write were Elders’ life stories. In those days, people weren’t talking openly about residential schools. There was one particular Elder who wanted her story to be about how her experience in a residential school impacted her life.

I ultimately ended up coordinating programs at Laichwiltach Family Life Society, and we got funding to run a residential school healing program. We had an advisory circle of residential school survivors. I told them that often, an educated person would put up their hand and ask, “sorry, what’s a residential school?” I think it’s Canada’s bad secret.

The Elders suggested I go out into the community and do workshops that help people understand. They said that it will be particularly helpful for teachers, health care workers, RCMP officers, government officials; really, anyone who works with our people. The Elders stressed that once they know what happened to our people, they’ll want to become part of the healing process rather than making up stories about us. So that’s what I did.

Ultimately, this became the Village Workshop Series which I facilitate far and wide. It was inspired by many individuals including Jann Derek, Jane Middleton-Moz, Berta Billy, and so many others.

How are you helping to prepare the staff at Q̓ʷalayu House to make the house a culturally safe space?

Q̓ʷalayu House staff will take part in my workshop. The workshop I often facilitate, Building Bridges to Understanding the Village, is about giving people an experience so they understand the horrific history this country has with Indigenous people.

Years ago, in conversation with the advisory circle of residential school survivors, I said, “I’m going to have a lot of non-Indigenous people at the workshops. What would you like me to tell them?”

And without even skipping a beat, they said, “if they’re coming to a workshop to learn about this with open hearts and open minds, tell them that it’s not their shame to carry. Shame is going to get in their way of being able to learn, understand, and help, and we need them to help change systems so they work better for us all.” That’s an important message for people to know.

What is cultural safety?

The National Aboriginal Health Organization defines cultural safety as, “a transformation of relationships. It moves beyond cultural competence in that it analyzes power imbalances, institutional discrimination, colonization, and colonial relationships as they apply to social policy and practice.”

It’s a process; it’s such a great time to be alive because we’re being called to action to reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says that reconciliation is about “coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people going forward.”

People have to know what happened in the past and acknowledge the harm inflicted. There must be atonement and then action to move forward and change behaviours. When we leave policies rooted in racism in our wake, we create dynamic systems that work well for everyone.

This leads to cultural safety, which is a process that involves recognizing and respecting the cultural differences among the many nations on Turtle Island. This is a lot of what I do in the Village Workshops, helping people understand on a cognitive and emotional level without blame or shame. We’re all relatives and we’re all from a village.

Can you share some examples of culturally safe and unsafe practices?

Once people learn this country’s history, they do things differently because they understand and have empathy.

For example, let’s say an Elder is arriving at a hospital and a nurse is showing him to his room and bed. He says, “these bed sheets are exactly like the ones in the Indian hospital and residential school in which I experienced abuse. Could I keep the light on all night, please? It would really help me to keep the light on.”

If the nurse did not understand the history, she might call the psychiatry department because an adult shouldn’t need to have the light on all night.

But if she knows and is operating in a culturally safe way, she would say, “of course you can have the light on all night. As a matter of fact, I’m going to work on getting you some different kind of sheets on this bed. And I’m getting off shift in a little while and I’m going to sit with you and hold your hand until you feel safe here.”

It’s about relationships. It’s about listening more than we talk. It’s about asking, what do you need to feel safe here?

Can you share a story of the impact of your work?

Before the pandemic, I was facilitating four to six workshops per week across the country. Now, it’s online. It’s quite something to watch the lights go on for people who had no idea. And for them to leave with a deep commitment to educate others and do things in a more equitable way, no matter where they go.

I remember there was one fellow who said after the workshop, “I used to think that reconciliation was going to be about grand gestures he said, but I see it differently now. I know that I am going to be different now in every interaction, in every breath that I share now with an Indigenous person. I’m going to be different.”

That was a powerful statement and that’s what I hope will happen for those who take part in my workshops. I hope that they leave changed and willing to take responsibility to change systems that are rooted in racism.