Aaron Mills

Study program:
PhD Law and Society
Current affiliation:
University of Victoria

Aaron is examining the Anishnaabe legal tradition and how a revival of Indigenous legal orders will help Canadians to better understand Aboriginal issues.

Aaron Mills' research discloses a view of Anishinaabe constitutionalism grounded in Anishinaabe worldview. The cultural grounding is imperative to his research because it presents an opportunity to understand what matters most to Anishinaabeg communities, and why. With this understanding, settler peoples are empowered to forsake existing relationships premised on domination for functioning treaty relationships through which both indigenous and Canadian political communities may thrive. To this end Aaron works in various capacities with indigenous elders and knowledge keepers, indigenous communities, lawyers, judges, academics, students, media, NGOs and public service institutions, and engaged members of the general public.

Doctoral research 

Aaron’s dissertation seeks to respond to the political problem of colonialism in Canada and how Canadian law is used to serve colonialism’s end.  Colonialism is not a completed historical fact; rather, it is a relational mode, one of systematic and institutionalized violence.  It is also the foundation for contemporary Crown-Indigenous relationships and for many relationships of non-Indigenous and Indigenous citizens of Canada.  Aaron’s dissertation holds that the problem can be addressed if we empower Indigenous peoples to revitalize their systems of law and are willing to have Canadian law enter into constitutional dialogue with these systems rather than having it assume power over them. Such a goal will only be achievable once non-Indigenous peoples have been empowered to understand how and why Indigenous legal orders work.  To that end, Aaron’s dissertation will draw primarily on elders and knowledge-keepers, on archival information, on the aadizookaanan (sacred stories), and on the land itself, to offer one articulation of Anishinaabe constitutionalism. 

Q & A 

Tell us about your research project and its central idea. 

At the heart of my project is the idea that indigenous peoples, like all peoples, are free only when living under systems of law that reflect their own deep norms—for instance, their ideas about freedom, justice, and equality—which they have authorized as legitimate.  Because Canadian constitutionalism disallows this basic freedom for indigenous peoples, it has institutionalized a relation of domination, the violence of which impacts all Canadians, not just indigenous peoples.  Colonialism isn’t a completed historical fact; it is a relational mode and it is thriving.  I believe the only way to decolonize our relationship is to empower the revitalization of indigenous legal orders.  Healthy indigenous legal orders stand to benefit us all.  As such, my project explores the legal order of one indigenous people, the Anishinaabeg (also known as Ojibwe in Canada and Chippewa in the U.S.), of which I am a member.  I am articulating a conception of Anishinaabe constitutionalism for the understanding of all Canadians, not just for my own cultural community.   

What led you to choose this research project in particular? 

I came to this project through a combination of anger and hope.  As a law student, I was deeply discouraged to discover the mechanics of my country’s contemporary commitment to colonialism.  All the way down, Canada’s orientation towards indigenous peoples is a relation of power-over, not power-with.  All the rights indigenous peoples enjoy expressly by virtue of their indigeneity, whether through act of parliament, negotiated agreement, or judicial decision, have been carefully circumscribed so as not to challenge imperial right: the unjustified colonial privilege that Canada takes as its starting point.  This is an unacceptable foundation for policy, for law, for citizenship, and for political community.  We can do better.  

At the same time, I also discovered the amazing work of many who are committed to re-founding Canadian constitutionalism on a foundation of non-violence.  These include my own supervisors, but also Anishinaabe community members.  I’m deeply inspired by my grandmother and other elders I work with who care passionately about our own system of law while retaining their concern for the welfare of other peoples too.   

What is new or surprising about your research? 

Many thinkers have taken up the question of how to respond to the fact that indigenous peoples were already living on Turtle Island when European colonization here began.  Some reject all European influence and would ask those of European descent to go home.  Some go far the other way, accepting liberal democratic constitutionalism as the foundation for indigenous law today, sparing it from their critical gaze.  Many find a position between these extremes.  My approach calls the entire enterprise of Canadian constitutionalism into question, while insisting that there is a legitimate place for settler peoples on Turtle Island.  I am not interested in transforming the content of indigenous legal orders into forms cognizable to liberal constitutionalism.  Rather, I arrive at my position by looking at indigenous law on its own terms.               

Most of us think that in order for a system of law to be meaningful, it must express a theory of obligation, but this is a deeply western perspective.  For many indigenous peoples, law is instead animated through gift relationships.  But importantly, this doesn’t mean that indigenous law lacks compulsion.  It means that force operates through a different logic.  I know only a few other contemporary academic thinkers willing to leave theories of obligation behind, but it is a view I have often heard elders voice.  My project is unique in that it seeks to explain indigenous law on its own terms: how the logic of gift relationships, at present alien to most of us, can animate a system of law and the constitution of political community.  

In your opinion, who will most benefit from your findings? 

I hope that my project will have its most profound impact on Anishinaabe communities, but that will turn on whether their members find it a helpful resource for their goals today.  I hope it will model a kind of inquiry that could be pursued for many if not most other indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, too.  Of critical importance, if, as I hope, my project serves as an impetus for collective citizen action, it could be transformative for all of us living in Canada.  It could help to lead non-indigenous Canadians away from a relation of power-over towards a relation of power-with indigenous peoples.  This would benefit all of us.  If our relationship had trust as its foundation, our political energies might blend and build off of one another much more often than they conflict, and when they do conflict—which will certainly still occur—we would be committed to really listening.  I think my project stands to serve the promotion of trust because it demands respect for indigenous ways of being and knowing, while demanding respect for the welfare of non-indigenous peoples for whom Turtle Island is also now home.   

Within the next three to five years, what impact could your research have on the Canadian public policy debate?  

When we allow the dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians on how to live here together to be framed in terms of reconciliation, devolution as self-governance, and accommodation, we are headed down a path that can lead only to future conflict.  Our challenge as Canadian citizens is not to figure out how to fully accommodate indigenous peoples within Canada’s uninterrupted political and legal fabric.  The pursuit of that goal is a large part of how things have gotten so bad.  Instead, Canadians must own up to the fact that indigenous peoples have and have always had their own legal orders and systems of governance.  If non-indigenous peoples learn this, then they must either actively call into question the conditions of their own presence here or passively accept unjustified settler privilege as an answer.            

In articulating a view of how one indigenous people’s system of law works, my research advances the call for citizen engagement with their political status.  It is my hope that it will serve as a helpful resource for anyone wanting to ask such questions and as a necessary target for those who do not.  Whether they agree with me or not, I hope that people of diverse identities and politics will accept my offer to challenge themselves to learn about indigenous legal orders and thus come to see this land and their country differently.  Indigenous legal orders should be studied by every law and political science student in the country.  My research aims to move them from the margins to the centre of Canadian political and legal consciousness.

Aaron Mills (Waabishki Ma’iingan, Baatwetang) is a Bear Clan Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation, Treaty 3 Territory, and from North Bay, Ontario, Robinson-Huron Treaty territory.   In 2010, Aaron obtained a JD from the University of Toronto, where he was editor-in-chief of the Indigenous Law Journal and sat on the board of directors of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.  In 2011, he completed articles at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, where he worked on an Aboriginal title file, a treaty rights file, myriad duty-to-consult files, assertions of Indigenous law, and the protection of a sacred Anishinaabe site.  Aaron earned an LLM at Yale Law School as a Fulbright Scholar in 2012.&nbsp.  Currently, Aaron is a Vanier Canada Scholar and a doctoral student at the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law.   He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Indigenous Bar Association. 

Aaron is highly motivated by the examples of his mother and his nookomis (grandmother), who have lived their lives doing their best to help others.   One of Aaron’s central goals is to ensure that his work is relevant beyond the academy.  As early as the first year of his PhD, he was already finding ways to bring his research into public service.     

Aaron’s dissertation, conducted under the supervision of Professors John Borrows and James Tully, examines Anishinaabe constitutionalism and is motivated by the belief that the revitalization of Indigenous legal orders today stand to benefit all Canadians.