Cultural Safety and FASD Prevention

The term “cultural safety” is popping up in all sorts of fields these days, ranging from law to education to social policy. It’s also a term connected with a growing number of FASD support programs, such as the Alberta Parent-Child Assistance Program (PCAP) and the FASD Key Worker and Parent Support Program in British Columbia, which include cultural safety as part of the program framework.

So, what is cultural safety? Cultural safety is still a relatively new term in the Canadian context, but it first evolved out of nursing practice in New Zealand with regards to health care for Maori people. It was suggested that in order to provide quality care for people from different ethnicities and cultures that nurses needed to provide care within the cultural values and norms of the patient.

In Canada, the concept is often used to describe an approach to healthcare that recognizes the conditions that Aboriginal people experience today as a result of a history of colonization, residential schools, and other practices of cultural and social assimilation. This has resulted in a lack of trust and understanding between health care providers and patients and power imbalances that affect care and treatment. Culturally unsafe practices can be considered “any actions that diminish, demean, or disempower the cultural identity and well-being of an individual.”

Cultural safety can be a tool for understanding relationships between health care providers and patients, for analyzing organizational practices, and developing policies that support healing and self-determination.

When cultural safety does not exist, we see issues like the reluctance of individuals to visit mainstream health facilities even when services are needed (and a subsequent discussion by programmers about the “low utilization” of available services by Aboriginal people), inappropriate discussions about the “non-compliance” of individuals with referrals and recommendations, and feelings of fear, disrespect and alienation.

When we apply cultural safety to FASD prevention, we start to recognize things like how:

  • FASD is a medical diagnostic label based on a Western bio-medical model; FASD prevention interventions are based on this same bio-medical model of care
  • FASD continues to be described in mainstream media as a problem primarily in Aboriginal communities
  • Discussions of FASD often build on the historical ‘deficit’ view of Aboriginal people and, in particular, of Aboriginal women as ‘deficit’ mothers
  • The solutions to preventing FASD still continue to focus on addressing alcohol use during pregnancy and do not recognize the historical relationships between colonization, trauma, and alcohol use
  • FASD prevention frequently views alcohol use in pregnancy as an act by an individual women that must be targeted with various interventions (e.g., awareness campaigns and screening by health care providers) and ignores strategies that focus on families and communities (e.g., policies to redress residential schools or addictions programs that include a cultural component on intergenerational trauma)

There’s a growing number of resources on cultural safety available on-line. You can take a look at the resources below as well as the National Aboriginal Health Organization website and the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation website.



Brascoupe, S. (2009). Cultural Safety:  Exploring the Applicability of the Concept of Cultural Safety to Aboriginal Health and Community Wellness.  The Journal of Aboriginal Health.  Ottawa: National Aboriginal Health Organization. Download free full-text here.

FASD Network Action Team on FASD Prevention from a Women’s Health Determinants Perspective. (2010). 10 Fundamental components of FASD prevention from a women’s health determinants perspective.

Gerlach, Alison J. (2012). A critical reflection on the concept of cultural safety. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 79(3): 151-158.

Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada and The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.  (2009). First Nations, Inuit, Metis Health Core Competencies: A Curriculum Framework for Undergraduate Medical Education.

National Aboriginal Health Organization. (2008).  Cultural Competency and Safety: A Guide for Health Care Administrators, Providers and Educators. Ottawa, ON.

Tait, Caroline L. (2008) Ethical Programming Towards a Community-Centered Approach to Mental Health and Addiction Programming in Aboriginal communities. Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, 6(1), 29-60. Download free full-text from here.

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