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Couchiching member earns prestigious academic accolade

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Aaron Mills’ dedication and interest in academics and research has paid off with national recognition.

The Couchiching First Nation member, a University of Victoria Ph.D. Law and Society student, recently was awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Talent Award—one of five Impact Awards presented by the SSHRC.

The award recognizes “outstanding achievement by a current SSHRC doctoral or post-doctoral scholarship or fellowship holder.”

“My initial response was feeling overwhelmed,” admitted Mills.

“It’s a pretty incredible thing; they only give out one of them,” he enthused. “To have been chosen for that was certainly nbot expected.”

Mills recalled being amazed throughout the process after first being long-listed, then short-listed, and then named one of three finalists before finally being awarded the prize.

“My dissertation isn’t just an academic endeavour,” he explained. “I really wholeheartedly believe in the work that I’m doing.

“It’s a pretty incredible opportunity to develop dialogues around what I’m trying to do and the issues that I’m trying to address, and help me to task my voice much further, so I was pretty grateful for that,” he added.

Along with the award, Mills received $50,000 that will go towards funding his research.

While Mills has several options for what sort of research he’ll undertake, he hopes to work on a series of smaller projects rather than one large one.

Mills, who previously studied at Carleton University in Ottawa, the University of Toronto, and Yale University in Connecticut, said he’s learned something from each school that has benefitted his work at UVic.

He initially majored in philosophy and English literature at Carleton.

“What I really took from my undergraduate education was a capacity for critical thinking [and], in the case of philosophy, analytical thinking,” he noted.

“Those skills have been extraordinarily useful, not just in my education but throughout interactions in my everyday life.”

Following his time at Carleton, Mills earned a Juris Doctor degree in 2010.

“In law school, I really learned the mechanics,” he remarked. “And then through constitutional law, in particular, I learned the mechanics of how colonialism works today.

“Because colonialism is not as so many of us believe—a historical process that ended hundreds of years ago,” Mills said. “It’s actually a particular kind of relationship.

“So what it looks like has actually shifted throughout decades and centuries, but the structure of that relationship has remained common and how power works within it,” he explained.

Mills then spent a year at Yale, where he earned a Master of Law through Yale Law School.

“The thing that I took was that it really deepened my understanding of what’s called liberalism,” he said.

“And I don’t mean the political party [but] the comprehensive view of how politics, law, and economics should be organized.

“So liberalism in the sense of a road map of what a just society should look like,” he continued.

“My undergraduate was not in political theory, so it helped me to put what I had learned at U. of T. about Canadian constitutionalism in a deeper and broader theoretical context.”

Now at UVic, Mills said his focus squarely is on indigenous peoples’ own systems of law and he expects to complete the Ph.D. by September, 2018.

“All of that other stuff was context really for what I am doing now,” he noted. “That’s what my work is really about now: how does our own traditional systems of law work?”

Mills conceded that at the start of his academic career, he didn’t think he would be pursuing various degrees from four different universities.

“I was extremely excited to be starting university,” he recalled. “I didn’t care for high school very much; I was sort of one of those kids that grew up too fast and I was much too serious, I think.

“So university was a much better fit and I was grateful to get there,” he enthused.

“Having professors that really believed in me, I think, made all the difference and I’m still in touch with some of them, actually.”

Once Mills completes his studies at UVic, he hopes to continue his research down the road.

“Ideally, I will take up a post at a law school in Canada that will allow me to pursue my research agenda,” he said.

“There’s some law schools that I think would be wonderful in that regard . . . but I would love to locate myself in a law school that has a commitment to talking about questions of indigenous peoples and their relationship with other Canadians,” he added.

Mills said he’s open to discussions with community members and can be contacted through the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation website.

“I would extend an invitation to anybody at Couchiching, Fort Frances, or any nearby communities, if they re interested in pursuing discussions . . . I would love to chat with folks,” he noted.

“If folks are interested in organizing community discussions, I would very much love those opportunities.”

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