Circle of Understanding

In the cultural safety training session offered by Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, participants sit in a circle – a non-hierarchical formation that allows people to see their interconnection, rather than their differences.

As Aboriginal Student Success Strategist with Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, Laura Maracle has led cultural safety training sessions at Queen’s University for the past five years. (University Communications)

“We want people to feel part of a whole, and to feel comfortable in sharing their stories,” says Laura Maracle, Aboriginal Student Success Strategist with Four Directions. “We want to take the power differential out of interactions, and create an environment of self-reflection and respect.”

Ms. Maracle has led cultural safety training sessions at Queen’s for the past five years, mostly in the Faculty of Health Sciences. She now leads sessions in departments across campus, upon request.

The program – started by Maori nurse Irihapeti Ramsden in New Zealand in 1990 – is intended to bridge the cultural gap that exists particularly in relation to Aboriginal people, and to foster understanding and respect between people of all backgrounds. It was initially aimed at providing frontline health workers with knowledge and training that would help them understand cultural sensitivities and combat subtle and overt racism.

“While this training was started to help Indigenous people, it really is for everyone. Being culturally competent helps everyone,” says Ms. Maracle. “We need to build awareness, create a climate of understanding, and we need to be open, unafraid to have uncomfortable conversations and ask questions.”

During the three-hour training session, Ms. Maracle and participants move through a series of discussions, all with the goal of learning about each other, their families and cultural backgrounds, their beliefs and faiths, and their personal identities. Ms. Maracle gives each participant several Post-it notes – and on these, participants draw and write about themselves.

“They draw a picture to depict their name on one note, and on the others, they answer the questions: What is your gift? And what do you want to share?” she says. “Essentially, what they put on the Post-it notes gives the group an understanding of their identity, what they feel they offer to the world, and how they are doing on an emotional level. This gives participants a chance to reflect on their own views and values, and gain insight into how they look at people of different backgrounds.”

Ms. Maracle also facilitates the Kairos blanket exercise and provides short interactive lectures that help participants better understand the historical, political and cultural issues that impact Indigenous people and their communities. They also learn about concepts of holistic health and healing through an Indigenous lens.

“This training is vital for our entire community,” says Caroline Davis, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) and co-chair of the Aboriginal Council Queen’s University. “In this safe setting, Queen’s staff, students and faculty members can learn and share together. In our society, it is easy to just look at each other’s differences, instead of what binds us together. This is an opportunity to become a more inclusive and understanding community.”

More information on cultural safety training is available from Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.