Couchiching band member hired to teach law at McGill

Kiera Kowalski
Summer reporter

When Aaron Mills began his undergraduate degree at Carleton University in Ottawa in the fall of 2000, he didn’t think teaching would be in the books for his future.
But now, 17 years, four degrees, multiple scholarships, and one talent award later, Mills will begin teaching as an assistant professor at the McGill Law School in Montreal next August, including the introduction to indigenous constitutionalism.
“The thing I find really exciting about McGill Law right now is that they have a big push on engaging with indigenous peoples’ own systems of law,” said Mills, a Bear Clan Anishinaaabe from Couchiching First Nation.
“So not Canadian law or international law in regards to indigenous peoples, but actually our own systems,” he explained.
“I’m a Ph.D. student and that’s what my work is all about,” added Mills.
“To have a commitment to that focus is a great big deal to me.”
Mills became familiar with the faculty and students at McGill by presenting there about once a year.
“I started to get a sense of the place,” he remarked.
The last talk he gave there was well-received, noted Mills, which led to an offer by the dean, followed by a contract negotiation.
“They were looking for someone who was interested in teaching and researching in this area,” Mills said.
“I felt it was sort of a natural fit.”
Mills’ academic experience includes an undergraduate degree from Carleton University, a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Law degree from Yale University in Connecticut.
He currently is working on his Ph.D. through the University of Victoria, which he will complete by next September.
Mills said that midway through his university career, he realized just practising law wouldn’t satisfy him.
“I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t feel, well for one, happy, or two that I was effective, if I ended up practising law in a traditional sort of way,” he admitted.
“I wanted to focus on deeper, bigger picture issues of justice to contribute to helping indigenous peoples.
“So for those reasons, I realized fairly early on that just practising law wasn’t going to work very well for me,” he reiterated.
“So my focus shifted to the academic.”
One challenge Mills will face teaching at McGill is having to speak French.
“One of the fascinating things about McGill Law is that the students have a charter, and under that charter they are able to ask any questions they want in French,” he noted.
“I don’t technically have to reply in French but I think as a sign of respect, I would like to be able to do so.
“I do speak French but I’ve got work to do,” Mills conceded. “It’s been about 17 or 18 years since I’ve spoken French regularly.
“I am required to be able to understand anything they want to say to me,” he added.
“I have a fair bit of responsibility to rising to that challenge.”
Otherwise, Mills said he’s looking forward to moving to Montreal.
“I absolutely love that city,” he enthused. “It just has a vibrant energy.
“There is a powerful sense of student engagement in the city, which I find inspiring,” he added.
This September will mark two years since Mills and his wife made the move back home.
“I needed to spend this time in my own community here, in Couchiching, to connect and to learn,” he explained.
“I worked most closely with my grandmother, Bessie Mainville, an elder at Couchiching.
“My learning is mostly one-on-one in small groups,” Mills noted. “My grandmother and I thought through a project with an advisory circle.
“With the people of Couchiching, we put forward a proposal and it was approved.”
The project involved a series of sharing circles that Mills called “aadizookaanan,” which ran every week from the end of November to the first week of April.
“Sometimes it was just Couchiching folks; sometimes there were youth and elders from other communities,” he said.
“It was something I wanted to do to give back to the community.”
Mills will be here for one more year before he moves to Montreal to start his new venture as an assistant professor.