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Symposium: Decolonizing our relationships through lateral kindness

Symposium: Decolonizing our relationships through lateral kindness

By Karen Fish , Jaime Stief Jaime Stief on September 14, 2017

This blog post has been written as part of a three-part series on Indigenous health and knowledge translation. It was created in response to the NCCDH’s attendance at the Public Health 2017 conference in Halifax, NS, in June 2017. It is also intended to build on the NCCDH’s ongoing work to be an anti-racist organization.

One of this post’s authors, Karen Fish, is a white, non-Indigenous woman based out of Antigonish, NS, in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. Her professional background includes research, writing and editing in the fields of health and science and society issues.

The post’s other author, Jaime Stief, is a white, non-Indigenous woman based out of Waterloo, ON, the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples.. Her professional background includes writing and copy editing for print and digital publications.

In June 2017, Karen Fish had the pleasure of attending a highly praised symposium organized by the First Nations Health Directors Association (FNHDA) at the Public Health 2017 conference in Halifax, NS, in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People.

Symposium title: Decolonizing Our Relationships through Lateral Kindness

Moderator: Kim Brooks, department head of Squamish Nation Yúustway Health Services and president of the FNHDA Board


  • Shannon MacDonald, deputy chief medical officer, First Nations Health Authority (FNHA)
  • Emmy Manson, regional mental wellness advisor, FNHA
  • Virginia Peters, interim elder advisor, FNHDA

The purpose of this event was to introduce the concepts of lateral violence and lateral kindness, and to identify strategies for applying lateral kindness in a multitude of settings.

Understanding lateral violence

The concept of lateral violence was central to the FNHDA’s symposium, and was defined by the Indigenous panel as making one another poorer by turning anger and disatisfaction toward each other. The source of lateral violence among Indigenous peoples is complex in nature and connected to the colonization, racism and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples. A 2014 publication from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation addresses the extent to which residential schools contributed to lateral violence. The report’s authors explain that “as oppressed people, it is not surprising that we oppress our own people out of anger and frustration” (Bombay, 2016).

Like racism, lateral violence can express itself at multiple levels: personal, institutional and structural, among others. (For further information on this topic, we recommend a resource titled Understanding Racism from the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health). In Indigenous communities, as in non-Indigenous communities, this phenomena manifests in homes, workplaces and political arenas. At the personal level, which was one focus of this symposium, lateral violence is expressed in the following ways:

  • Nonverbal intimation (raising eyebrows, making faces, eye rolling)
  • Obvious name calling
  • Sarcasm, snide comments and put downs
  • Blaming
  • Making up and/or exaggerating scenarios
  • Making jokes that are offensive by spoken word or email
  • Using put downs
  • Ignoring, excluding or freezing out

As explained by the speakers, the side effects of lateral violence in Indigenous communities can range from loss of sleep and weight loss or gain to anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and depression. Put simply, lateral violence is bad for Indigenous peoples’ health.

Panelists Shannon MacDonald and Emmy Manon, who spoke on behalf of the FNHA, described their organization’s system-wide effort to combat lateral violence, as seen in section 3.6 of its Respectful Workplace Policy:

FNHA will not tolerate ‘lateral violence’ in the workplace. FNHA employees support one another as a collective and will respond to lateral violence using the organizational values of respect, fairness and the importance of relationships to create an environment that is built on the foundation of kindness. They will strive to replace lateral violence in any of its forms with acts of kindness.

Aiming to combat lateral violence at the institutional level, the policy prioritizies a “safe and healthy work environment” alongside its guidelines for access of information and its policies for its board of directors.

Introducing lateral kindness

In response to the destruction caused by lateral violence in Indigenous communities, the concept of lateral kindness has emerged, drawing on Indigenous values that promote social harmony and healthy relationships.

Emmy Manson of the FNHA defined lateral kindness in the simplest of terms: “It’s holding each other up.” Instead of focusing on negative behaviours and issues, lateral kindness celebrates positive behaviours in others, even small ones. It is a system in which individuals are lifted up and supported, and one that the FNHC is working to build internally.

In a 2016 FNHA newsletter describing the orgnanization’s own pursuit of lateral kindness, the FNHA refers to the FNHDA as a champion of the movement. One obvious example can be found on the FNHDA website, where the biography of Kelowa Edel, the health manager of Stó:lō Nation, directly addresses her commitment to lateral kindness in concrete terms:

Kelowa practices lateral kindness by never making assumptions and she never takes things personally. She always checks things out, strives to be impeccable with her word and always does her very best in treating people how she would love to be treated.

Edel’s statement emphasizes empathy as a central tenet of her work, a key factor in combatting lateral violence at the personal level.

Steps for the future

The efforts made to institutionalize lateral kindness — and, concurrently, to de-institutionalize lateral violence — reflect an effort to mitigate the effects of colonization on Indigenous communities and relationships. The speakers made a point of discussing a 2014 FNHDA document intended to help assist with these goals, titled Position Statement: A Call to Action towards a zero tolerance of lateral violence.

In this document, the FNHDA outlines 13 actions that can help “ensure wellness in physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health on an individual and collective basis.” The steps are a framework for healing of lateral violence, and include actions such as:

  • using First Nations cultural values to inform structural changes when addressing lateral violence;
  • encouraging self-knowledge about the harmful effects of colonization, historical injustices and violence, including how to make these realities growth experiences; and
  • working with partners to develop First Nations–specific education materials to build awareness about how lateral violence affects our health and wellness.

The FNHA’s and FNHDA’s work in this area is inspiring and points to potential next steps for others wishing to enact lateral kindness at an organizational level.


Works cited

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2014). Origins of Lateral Violence in Aboriginal Communities. Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

First Nations Health Authority. (November 25, 2016). “#Violencestopswithme: BC First Nations Commit to Ending Violence against Women and Girls.” First Nations Health Authority Website: News.

First Nations Health Directors Association. (2014). Position Statement: A Call to Action towards a zero tolerance of lateral violence.

National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health. (2013). Understanding Racism.


Cultural SafetyIndigenous healthRacism/racializationRacial equity at the NCCDH