Talent Award: Jeremy Schmidt

Aaron Mills

Talent award:

Aaron Mills

Faculty of Law

University of Victoria


The 2016 Talent Award winner, Aaron Mills, is a bear clan Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation, Treaty #3 Territory, and from North Bay, Robinson-Huron Treaty Territory. He’s a lawyer (JD, University of Toronto; LLM, Yale University) but most of his legal knowledge now comes from his research and his relationships with elders and the land. He’s working to revitalize Indigenous law and constitutionalism in his own Anishinaabe community of Couchiching First Nation, and throughout Canada.

He believes that revitalizing Indigenous systems of law within their own constitutional frameworks will aid in transforming ongoing colonial relationships in Canada into respectful, non-violent relationships that work better for everyone. Mills engages broadly with diverse groups across Canada, mobilizing his research well beyond the academy.

His graduate work on Anishinaabe constitutionalism has garnered numerous academic awards: in addition to this year’s SSHRC Talent Award, Aaron is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Canada Scholar, and during his LLM, he was a Fulbright Scholar. Mills has sat on the board of directors of the Indigenous Bar Association and of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, and served as editor-in-chief of the Indigenous Law Journal.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship.

The Talent Award recognizes outstanding research achievement and career potential from a SSHRC doctoral or postdoctoral fellowship or scholarship holder.

How would you describe the main focus of your work?

Many Canadians take pride in what they see as Canada’s deep constitutional commitment to diversity and disagreement. However, this rich tradition of difference exists within a particular, culturally bound constitutional mode, which radically constrains the scope and character of all possible contention. My work discloses this constitutional mode to Canadians by showing that Indigenous political communities aren’t just different from others in Canada (in the way that every community is different with respect to all others), but rather that they’re different in kind. Societies operating within what I call a “rooted” constitutional mode don’t constitute themselves in respect of the questions: what is a just society? and how can we create and maintain one?—but rather with how does the earth organize and sustain communities? and how can we best fit in? Critically, that last question places emphasis not just on our own needs, but on those of all our relations, too. My work focuses on explaining rooted constitutionalism to a wide and diverse audience, and in particular, that while Indigenous peoples are its teachers and exemplars, rooted constitutionalism is open to all.

What do you most want Canadians to understand about your research?

Although I insist on giving voice to difficult truths, I proceed in my work with all of creation in mind and I hope that more often than not readers can feel this orientation in my work. If I stray from this vision, I trust my elders, mentors, friends and the earth itself to correct me. For greater certainty, “all of creation” includes settler peoples: we’re all related. My work seeks to articulate a form of governance that allows diverse Indigenous and settler peoples on Turtle Island (North America) to live with one another and with (and, critically, through) the earth, in a good way. Acknowledging that colonialism stands in the way of this respectful relationship—that colonialism is a relationship, not a long-completed fact, and thus that it persists today—isn’t prioritizing the past over the present. It’s prioritizing a non-violent future for all peoples of Turtle Island over the quiet violence of Canada’s present.