In the third grade Malaihka Siemens met the first — and only — classroom teacher she would ever have who looked like her.

At the time, Frances Smith was approximately five-foot-four with short black hair, glasses and a teaching style that incorporated sharing circles into the classroom, recalls Siemens, now in her final year in Manitoba’s public school system.

Malaihka Siemens, an Argyle Alternative High School student in the Building From Within teacher development program.


Malaihka Siemens, an Argyle Alternative High School student in the Building From Within teacher development program.

"Up until then, I hadn’t seen anybody Indigenous in a teacher’s position," says the 17-year-old, who is Oji-Cree and Kenyan.

"From there, I had this vision of me being in her position and I kind of vicariously lived through her in her classroom because I was so fascinated with the way she incorporated our culture into her lessons so eloquently."

Had Siemens not been in Smith’s class at Sister MacNamara School, she may never have put becoming a teacher on her bucket list.

That’s the premise behind a new report card on the state of equity in Manitoba’s K-12 education system.

Authored by the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle, the report outlines the underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples as teachers in classrooms of all grade levels, in post-secondary faculties of education and on public school boards across the province.

"In order to improve academic outcomes for Indigenous students, they need to see themselves better reflected in the curriculum and teaching staff working in their schools," states the 31-page-document, which is to be made public Tuesday.

While the authors acknowledge the traumas of the residential school system and related issues of poverty and mental health care must be taken into account when working to improve Indigenous graduation rates, they argue representation plays an important role in boosting outcomes.

"A teacher is really important to the lives of the kids, as we all know, and having more Indigenous educators in those positions and giving (students) different viewpoints, the class as a whole, I think is a great goal," said Trevor LaForte, co-chairman of the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle.

LaForte added that achieving such a goal requires both data collection and targets to improve the status quo at training and division levels — which are among the 10 calls to action listed in the report.

Other calls to action range from an ask all divisions create an employment equity policy to a call for universities to release annual Indigenous enrolment and graduation reports to the creation of a designated Indigenous seat on school boards.

The report draws on survey response data collected from the six Winnipeg-area school divisions and the faculties of education at the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, University of Saint-Boniface and Brandon University in the spring of 2019.

The data indicate that in 2017-18, Indigenous students accounted for 27.2 per cent of the student population in the Winnipeg School Division. That same year, according to the report, 8.4 per cent of the division’s permanent teaching staff identified as Indigenous, while Indigenous support staff made up 13.3 per cent of its educational assistant roster.

The River East Transcona, Louis Riel, Pembina Trails, St. James-Assiniboia and Seven Oaks divisions did not provide detailed Indigenous self-identification figures — more often than not, citing the fact they do not collect such data.

As for a breakdown of teachers-in-training, figures in the report show Indigenous students accounted for 6.6 per cent of the total Bachelor of Education graduates at the U of W, on average, between 2011 and 2015. During that same period, the mean annual percentage at the U of M was 5.2 per cent.

Also in the report is a breakdown of the number of Indigenous trustees — 2 of 54 across the city’s six divisions — serving on school boards in Winnipeg. Both Métis trustees currently serve on the province’s largest board in central Winnipeg.

A co-author of the equity report and former trustee, Sonia Prevost-Derbecker knows firsthand the importance of having Indigenous representation on school boards, as well as how exhausting it can be to be the only Indigenous voice at a decision-making table.

"If you have Indigenous people at the table, you’ll have a greater chance of ensuring that Indigenous issues get a place of priority and outcomes will change as a result," she said.

Prevost-Derbecker is an advocate for empowering Indigenous students to become teachers. She wants to see Manitoba create an Indigenous education program at the post-secondary level, which is another one of the collective's calls to action.

In the Winnipeg School Division, the Build From Within Program — a program in partnership with U of W and Indspire Canada — aims to mentor and train Indigenous high school students to help them develop a path to become teachers.

Siemens is currently on that path. The Grade 12 student currently at Argyle Alternative High School said she often thinks back to how she felt in Smith’s classroom in Grade 3. Between Smith and the elders in her life, she said she has had a number of educational role models that have influenced her confidence as a learner.

She plans to graduate in June and study to become either a teacher or professor in the future.

"I hope to represent all the people who haven’t felt that they have been represented and seen and heard and valued in education and in their learning experiences," Siemens added.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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