Recently, I had a conversation with a physician who works with international groups. He had high praise for the BC Provincial Health Services Authority’s Indigenous Cultural Competency (ICC) training and wished it could be made available at an international level. He spoke of groups unintentionally insulting and offending one another. “Some of the most advanced nations on earth just don’t get it,” he said, “They just don’t have self-reflection or awareness of how they are perceived by the indigenous peoples of the world.”

That got me wondering. Where do we as Canadians fit on the world spectrum of cultural competency? We share this land between ancient indigenous cultures and relatively recent settlers and immigrants.  ICC participants often tell us they regret some of the things they have said and done in ignorance of indigenous people, history, and culture, and they wish they had ICC training in elementary or high school.  If Canadians had knowledge of Indigenous people in the areas of pre-contact, the impacts of colonization and residential schools, and current restrictions of the Indian Act (the only race based act that we know of in the world), would the crippling stereotypes about Aboriginal people be reduced? What needs to happen for Canadians to change and improve the way they engage with indigenous issues? Is it having more information? Is it a deeper examination about our own biases and the relationship of these to our work? These are good questions.

A doctor recently asked, how do you talk to a colleague who you have just witnessed being culturally incompetent? How do you say what needs saying while maintaining your relationship with the colleague, but also pointing them to a course correction?

As Canadians, we are not accustomed to these difficult conversations of confronting cultural incompetency or racial micro aggressions. Treating indigenous people with repulsion, or outright contempt still happens because long held negative stereotypes are deeply embedded within Canadian culture. We want to confront the people demonstrating harmful behaviour, but we are often at a loss as to how to even start that conversation. We lack a common language around this issue. We are also concerned that what we say might threaten the relationship with our colleague. For others, we are afraid of repercussions, especially if the person who has been inappropriate is in a position of authority.

The Indigenous Cultural Competency Training program tackles these and other kinds of issues. We have health care professionals, students, education, justice, and social workers taking our training. We are making some gains in British Columbia. Over the last three years, the ICC program has trained about 10,000 people. This is a good start Canada, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.

ICC is an eight-hour accredited facilitated on line training program. The interactive training covers three key areas; knowledge, self-awareness, and skills development. Anyone can take the online ICC training. Watch the video about the training here.

Leslie Varley is the Director of the Aboriginal Health Program at the Provincial Health Services Authority in British Columbia.  This blog is reprinted with the permission of the Health Council of Canada. For more on cultural competency, read the new report Empathy, Dignity and Respect: Creating Cultural Safety for Aboriginal People in urban health care.