Strengthening the circle to support reconciliation

Author: 
Cindy MacDougall

Siomonn Pulla was a high school student in a southern Ontario town when he first heard what would become the central tenet of his future research career. It was 1992, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in North America, and his social science teacher, Gary O’Dwyer, decided to subvert the usual narrative about the “discovery.”

“He brought in two elders from northern Ontario,” Pulla says. “They came into the school with the drum and the pipe and did a pipe ceremony and a talking circle. That really had a big impact on me.”

The Anishinaabe elders taught the students about the medicine wheel, Pulla says, including how in the four directions there was room in the circle for everybody.

"This idea of inclusiveness made a lot of sense to me even though I was growing up in a very small, very white town. But then there was the colonialism piece. I wanted to learn more about that, to learn how I could make a difference.”

That moment in a high school classroom ultimately led Pulla to 20 years of applied, interdisciplinary research and teaching. Pulla, an associate professor at Royal Roads’ College of Interdisciplinary Studies and head of the university’s Doctor of Social Science program, focuses on the past, present and future relationship between Indigenous people and the broader Canadian society.

He says his work is by nature interdisciplinary and best pursued as a scholar-practitioner engaged both inside and outside the academy. During his academic career, Pulla has put those convictions into action by studying under several disciplines during his master’s and doctoral programs, and working as a consultant with Indigenous communities, corporations and others engaging with Indigenous peoples.

“I enjoy doing applied research because I want to be able to make a difference and have my work be applicable in the real world,” Pulla says. “Nothing against theory, but I didn’t see that as necessarily useful for the Indigenous communities I was supporting or the corporations I was working with. They were interested in the tangibles.”

That commitment to the practical and the holistic shines in two recent research projects Pulla has completed with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Synthesis Grants.

The first, granted in 2015, explored mobile learning and Indigenous education in Canada and how technologies such as smart phones and laptops can help youth in rural and remote areas learn both traditional knowledge and new skills.

“I sat down with a really respected community member in Yellowknife, Guy Erasmus, who was running a program called Take a Kid Trapping. Guy was talking about how all the gizmos and gadgets kids have today are distracting them from connecting with the land and the elders,” says Pulla. “I thought, what if we turned that into a strength, because the gizmos and gadgets and the way we learn are changing.”

Pulla created a project to connect formal learning such as learning in schools, to informal learning such as learning hunting and gathering skills on the land. He later partnered with linguists and members of the Hul'qumi'num language group in the Cowichan Valley to explore the applicability of mobile-assisted language learning.

“How can we use new and emerging technologies to support language learning for example, so that elders can teach people from their homes, by going into virtual spaces, and by using laptops, tablets and smartphones?” he says.

His second knowledge synthesis grant, awarded in 2016, touches on corporate-Indigenous relationships and the philosophy of the “social licence to operate” for development within the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. In social licensing, corporations engage with Indigenous communities to negotiate resource use, environmental protection and benefits.

“There’s been some horrific stuff that’s happened in development,” Pulla says. “By the same token, there are now really empowering relationships that are growing out of corporate-Indigenous relationships outside of government intervention. In the corporate sector there’s been a real openness to learning and thinking about issues from a different perspective.”

Pulla says he will continue to focus his research on practical ways to support Indigenous communities and their engagement with other parts of Canadian society.

“Through education, through technology, through conversations, through research – I’m really focusing on the medicine wheel teachings about all the directions,” he says. “There’s room for everyone, and we all have something to offer. And that’s what makes the circle strong, when we work together in that cohesiveness.”

This profile was developed with the assistance of the Research Support Fund and will be included in the forthcoming 2018 Research in Action publication featuring Royal Roads University faculty and student research.