Ozhitoon Onji Peenjiiee

Ozhitoon Onji Peenjiiee (Build From Within) encourages the development of strong and passionate Indigenous teachers

When Malaihka Siemens was in elementary school, she met the first and only Indigenous teacher she would have throughout her entire K-12 education. Her name was Ms. Smith, and Siemens remembers one of the first things her teacher did was proclaim her Indigeneity, stating her name and clan.

“I had never heard that before in a school setting,” says Siemens.

“Over time I really connected with her. She just got me – she got what I was saying in my work and my assignments, my humour, the things I valued … I just loved her. I loved how proud she was and how she incorporated our culture in the work that she did. It took away a lot of shame I had.”

That was the year Siemens stopped hiding her background and began proclaiming her Indigeneity.

Malaihka Siemens, student-teacher intern with the Build from Within program stands in a public school hallway.

Malaihka Siemens

Siemens is now a student teacher intern with the Build from Within program, a joint venture between the Winnipeg School Division, University of Winnipeg, and Indspire Canada in which high school students, beginning in grade 11, complete their high school diploma, a 300-hour Education Assistant Diploma, Bachelor of Arts, and Bachelor of Education degrees. Participating in the program makes Siemens the first person in her family to graduate high school and attend university. She hopes to make change in the education system from the inside out, starting with Indigenous representation.

“I want to change some of the perspectives that are used in school. It’s very western focused, and it’s overall a very colonial system. I think a lot of Indigenous perspectives and teachings can help our youth grow, because we’re seeing so many mental health problems in school, especially with depression, anxiety. I think that’s because not a lot of people are willing to approach students with a holistic point of view.”

Siemens has already found working in the classroom to be rewarding – and found that it’s a place of learning for herself as well.

“It’s so amazing to watch [the students] grow throughout the year, and to know that you’re making a difference, and that you get to start fresh every day and do something new and learn something from them, too. Children are so intelligent, and they teach me so much. They’re my greatest teachers right now, so that’s been a really beautiful, humbling experience.”

The experience has also come with new challenges to navigate.

“I think the challenge that a couple people in the program have experienced is tokenization. It’s this invisible pressure to know all of Indigenous anything, even though everybody has different stages of knowledge, and education and experience. It’s assumed that you would know everything, especially in Indigenous education, and that’s not always the case.” says Siemens.

“The biggest thing, too, is knowing that if somebody doesn’t know something about their culture, that’s colonialism, that’s intergenerational effects that weren’t our choice. It’s another reason why someone may not have the answer to a question.”

One of Siemens’ key goals as an educator is to prevent students from feeling the lack of belonging she felt in the education system.

“What I want for every child possible that I work with, every youth possible, [is for them] to feel seen and heard and valued,” says Siemens.
“I want to show them that they can do it, and that they can make a change in their life and in their community.”

To learn more about Build From Within, visit winnipegsd.ca/page/15891/build-from-within-ozhitoon-onji-peenjiiee