‘Culturally-sensitive’ programming sometimes backfires

Blog, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

A few posts back, I mentioned the risks inherent in placing identity politics and cultural sensitivty ahead of protecting vulnerable individuals. In the case I mentioned, the lesson pertained to child and family services.

In this case, certain B.C. programs deemed to be culturally sensitive may be harming inner-city youth, rather than helping.

This point was revealed tragically in a recent news story in the Globe and Mail. A group of aboriginal youth were brought in for hospitalization after some social workers discovered rumours of a “suicide pact.” Thankfully, a special team disrupted the plans and the youth are being helped.

However, the culprit being targeted is what is termed an “apartheid system of programs.”

From the piece: “The government has instituted what is effectively an apartheid system,” Mr. Clark said. “Perhaps with good intentions, B.C. government ministries have funded parallel aboriginal systems and organizations for education, child and family services. … These types of programs have long been advocated to reflect cultural relevance for B.C.’s aboriginal peoples. However, what has evolved are systems where aboriginal people are pressured and often mandated to use aboriginal designated programs and organizations.”

The fact that the aboriginal youth themselves said they resented being pushed into native-only programs is also elucidating.

Rather than insist on native-only programs or always aspire to be ‘culturally sensitive’ above all, policy makers need to adopt evidence-based policies that work for the youth. Sometimes evidence may point to native-only programs in some cases, but it also may not. The priority should be on what works.