Cultural safety in emergency support services

by Kayla Pepper

What is cultural safety in the context of ESS?

Emergency Support Services (ESS) is a program guided by Emergency Management BC (EMBC) and delivered by First Nations or local governments to support evacuees during emergency events. As part of a Royal Roads University action research project, and with support from EMBC, I hosted virtual sharing circles with 23 Indigenous community or support organization practitioners. We came together to explore the question: What is cultural safety in the context of ESS?

Cultural safety in ESS was defined as creating safe spaces, free from discrimination, where Indigenous people, families and communities can continue practicing their culture even when displaced. ESS practitioners accompany evacuees with humility, open listening, kindness, compassion, respect, and consideration for their own and others’ mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and cultural well-being.

Support in emergencies extends beyond basic physical needs, as described by one community member,  “I think equally as much as people need food, clothing and shelter I think they also need spaces of emotional support and cultural well-being” (Participant 21). Captured below are the various ways cultural safety can be practiced in the context of ESS, as described by the participants.

Kayla Pepper conducting three virtual sharing circles to explore Cultural Safety in ESS with Indigenous emergency management practitioners (September 2020)

Cultural and spiritual supports

Many participants shared the importance of grounding the work in prayer and ceremony, including bringing in organizations like Tsow-Tun Le Lum and the First Nations Health Authority to provide support. Participant 15 also shared the importance of “acknowledging some of the traditional medicines and the traditional healers in the territory to ensure that they are a part of the ESS system.”


“There’s so much involved in our people being culturally safe. Knowing the language is probably the most important to me” (Participant 8). If there is a language barrier, there needs to be “an easily accessed process to maneuver through that barrier in a manner that makes your client feel special, welcome, respected and understood” (Participant 9). In addition to translation services, ESS teams could create signage in local Indigenous languages and learn words to build cultural bridges.

A visual representation of cultural safety in ESS (Pepper, 2021)

Reception centres: Familiar spaces

Transforming reception centres into welcoming environments supports cultural continuity. Participant 7 suggested this could be achieved by “pulling in the resources that are already in communities,” including Big Houses, Aboriginal Friendship Centres, and facilities in neighbouring First Nations communities.

Community navigators: Familiar faces

The “Community Navigator” is someone trusted who accompanies evacuees and serves as a liaison between the evacuated community and the host community or ESS team. There were examples of this position helping with delivering evacuation order notices, welcoming and registering evacuees at reception centres, and giving “voice to the community around what it was that they needed in order for the work to be effective” (Participant 18). They might also provide real-time feedback to ESS teams about how ESS could be adapted to meet community needs.

Healthy, traditional foods

Food and medicine is central to culture. Therefore, in ESS it is important to offer traditional foods and honour connection to the land. Participant 11 provided an example from the Tk’emlúps Powwow Grounds in 2017 when their Nation provided Indigenous and non-Indigenous evacuees with salmon,  They described how happy the Elders were because salmon “wholeheartedly makes you a healthier person at a time when you’re so stressed that regular food is just not nutritious enough to help your mind, body and soul when you’re displaced.”

One participant outlined how traditional practices can make a positive impact: “They [Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc] Powwow Grounds offered…more traditional foods and traditional ceremony, and it was more like a community” (Participant 9). Food and medicinal hampers could also be delivered to evacuees who might be facing a strain on personal resources during an evacuation.

Indigenous Emergency Management Partnership Tables, October 2019, Witset First Nation.


In general, group lodging environments were viewed as “not appropriate” for Indigenous evacuees because they triggered memories of residential school environments, which also had dormitory-like accommodations (Participants 2 and 16). Commercial lodging (hotels) might contribute to feelings of isolation and increased family stress when too many family members are housed in one room (Participant 12). One example from 2017 was when Elders were stranded in the Fraser Valley:

“…even after the longhouses had served the meals, they opened up one of the large rooms downstairs in the hotels so that people could just go and visit there. And there was a call out to all of the First Nations communities and all of the Fraser Valley for their weavers, beaders, drummers, storytellers…we had gone to the hotel to sit in the big room just to visit.” -Participant 15

An alternative solution to standard ESS group lodging was shared by an Indigenous emergency management practitioner who was evacuated from their home several times:

“We have a food service truck, so we’ll bring it out to the community and cook our traditional foods for the Elders and have them all in one spot with their families…So there’s no hotels, there’s no fast food, it’s camping. Traditionally doing the culture camps that we normally do. Having the group gatherings, having the drumming, having their traditional foods all in one area, in one of the communities where they feel safe, they feel protected. That gets rid of the racism and gets rid of the insecurities.” -Participant 12

Training and self-care

Participant 1 stated that while training is “really important,” that you have to “observe and respond, not just lead based on the experience and the training that practitioners have received.” Participant 4 added it is important to practice “an open mind and an open heart and just being available to accompany evacuees.” Therefore, ESS will be better equipped to observe and respond when ESS responders practice caring for their own mental, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being.

Words to remember

This project set out to explore the question: What is cultural safety in the context of ESS? Through participant feedback, a few themes emerged on how to achieve mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and cultural well-being, including cultural and language support and familiarity with spaces, faces, and food. “We can’t treat cultural safety and humility like the new buzzword…we actually have to practice cultural safety and humility through these systems and part of that is, of course, making sure that it’s free of racism and discrimination, but also really looking at that cultural humility piece…recognizing the lived realities of the individuals that are utilizing the services” (Participant 2).

As we continue this learning journey, I’m reminded that “safety is defined by those who receive the service, not those who provide it” (Ward et al., 2016, p. 30). My deep gratitude for everyone who shared their wise words and contributed to this work.


Kayla Pepper is of mixed-European descent and she lives on the unceded, traditional lands of the Secwépemc Nation. She contributes this article following the recent completion of a Master of Arts in Leadership thesis at Royal Roads University.



Pepper, K. (2021) Cultural Safety in Emergency Support Services. Royal Roads University.

Ward, C., Branch, C., & Fridkin, A. (2016) What Is Indigenous cultural safety—and why should I care about it? Vision, 11(4), 29–33.


Note from the Editor:

We are very grateful to the peer reviewers that make each issue of HazNet possible. Over the past five years, a supportive, constructive peer review has become one of the defining features of HazNet. We make every effort to ensure that the articles are reviewed by the people that are impacted by the words being written. They are the experts.

This peer review was provided by Sheri Lysons, Fire Chief, Adams Lake Indian Band. The review was provided before the discovery of 215 children on the grounds of a Kamloops Indian Residential School by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Sheri’s mother was the first child in her family to avoid this specific residential school. She was put in a foster home instead. Out of fourteen children, she was the first of three that did not attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

We are publishing this peer review along side with Kayla’s article as we believe it provides valuable insights in cultural safety in the direct voice of an Indigenous community safety practitioner:


“I think the article is really well written.  I have met Kayla Pepper through EMBC and partnership tables. I love her compassion and knowledge about cultural safety. In my opinion the one thing that could be addressed a little more is the fact that any group lodging would have potential to trigger an Indigenous person. Many of the residential schools had dormitory style sleeping arrangements. The fact that the residential school was used for lodging was beyond horrific.

On a personal note, I feel the buildings should be destroyed and the land made sacred.  In June, our band [Adams Lake Indian Band] is having a Bringing Our Spirit Home ceremony and they will be having members walking from the residential school in Kamloops back to Chase. It will take about three days. It would be a great idea for people that are advocating for cultural safety to participate in any such events within their community.

It is much easier to have empathy for a person or group when you actually see them and make an effort to understand their story before they are in a crisis.

I don’t know how it could be feasible, but it would be amazing if we could have nationwide EOC and lodging plans. If we could have safe spaces and necessary equipment in trailers and available to send to whichever community that needs it I feel it would be beneficial. I think it would also make our community members more likely to reach out for the services they may need. It could be something that is introduced to community members during emergency preparedness workshops, and they could be familiar with what is in them before they need it.   It would also be a good idea to have traditional food and medicine hampers that could be handed out to evacuees to bring with them if they are staying with friends and family. Many of our people are still living well below the poverty line and if they have extra people it may cause a great deal of strain on already limited resources. Many elders don’t know how to navigate the system when they have been evacuated.

So much of our culture is based around food and meals.”