Toronto Indigenous Rights Lawyers

Team Members:

Susan Vella - Practice Group Leader, Phone: 416.363.7627, Email: [email protected]

Michael Wilchesky – Associate, Phone: 416.363.1867 Ext 225, Email: [email protected]

Jennifer Lord - Legal Assistant, Phone: 416.363.1867 Ext. 248, Email: [email protected]


ROCHON | GENOVA LLP features an experienced team in the area of First Nations and Indigenous Rights litigation. We assist individuals, First Nations, and First Nations organizations in relation to various issues before the courts and tribunals including advancing mass tort claims on behalf of victims of abuse, advancing claims based on breach of treaty and Indigenous rights, land claims, and historical wrongs against governments, corporate entities, religious entities and other institutions.

Our practice group leader, Susan Vella, is recognized as one of Canada's foremost practitioners in the areas of civil sexual assault, institutional abuse, civil litigation and multi-victim lawsuits. In the September 2003 issue of L'ExpertTM magazine and in the National Post, Financial Post section that same year, Susan Vella was named as "one of the 15 top Canadian women lawyers to watch". Susan was awarded the Award of Justice by the Advocates' Society in 2008 in recognition of her accomplished work in this field on behalf of survivors of abuse.

On May 28th, 2009, Ms. Vella was awarded the Law Society Medal. The Law Society Medal is presented to Ontario lawyers who represent the highest level of achievement and commitment to serving society and the profession. Upon receiving this prestigious award, Ms. Vella was interviewed by Law Times in relation to her work in the area of civil sexual assault. Click here to view that interview.

Ms. Vella also successfully represented the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Windigo First Nations Council in a precedent setting motion at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. On August 16, 2011, Chief Justice Winkler granted NAN and Windigo's request, directing that Stirland Lake (also known as Wahbon Bay Academy) and Cristal Lake residential high schools be added to the list of Indian Residential Schools, thereby entitling former students to apply for the Common Experience Payment (CEP) and the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) relating to their attendance at these schools. This was the first decision in Canada in which a court added a residential school to the list over Canada's objection and, as such, represented an important precedent for Canada's First Nations. Click here to review Chief Justice Winkler's Reasons for Decision.

Susan Vella was one of the first lawyers to assist First Nations' survivors of clergy sexual abuse, including her landmark settlement on behalf of individuals who were abused by a priest at the Cape Croker reserve, and has represented First Nations survivors who were sexually abused by Ralph Rowe - a former Anglican minister, priest pilot and Boy Scouts Silver Acorn honouree who travelled to various reserve territories in north-western Ontario. In addition, Susan Vella represents survivors of the Indian Residential Schools system both before the courts and under the current Federal Government Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

Susan Vella had the further privilege of representing the Wunnumin Lake First Nation at the Supreme Court of Canada in Bazley v Curry , [1999] 2 SCR 534. Ms. Vella successfully advanced the proposition that the established common law concept of "vicarious liability", under the test known as the Salmond 'scope of employment', could be applied to render institutional, corporate and government employers liable for the harms caused by their employees' illicit sexual misconduct towards children and others vulnerable to or dependent upon those employees. This theory has been subsequently successfully applied by Ms. Vella and others to obtain compensation from religious organizations including the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, governments (such as in the residential school, training school and cadet cases), school boards, hospitals, and other employers who prior to this leading Supreme Court of Canada decision, were thought to be immune from responsibility unless the employer had actual knowledge of the abuse while it was ongoing and failed to intervene.

Susan Vella represented Nishnawbe Aski Nation (Treaty 9 Indigenous organization representing 49 First Nation communities) at the Supreme Court of Canada in a trilogy of sexual abuse cases and currently provides legal advice to multi-nation Indigenous organizations.

Ms. Vella also represents First Nations and Indigenous peoples in their quest for justice against governments, corporations and other institutions for historical and contemporary wrongs. She was winning counsel on behalf of Slate Falls First Nation in resisting a comprehensive attack by the federal government and Ontario Power Generation to stop this First Nation's flooding claim relating to its traditional territory and its members' former reserve land without the right to go to trial. [see Reasons for Judgment of Justice Horkins released on September 21, 2004]. Ms. Vella recently completed the yearlong trial in this matter which featured the calling of elders, other members of the First Nation community and experts, and was conducted as an electronic (paperless) trial.

Ms. Vella contributed a chapter, as co-author, to a fundamental Indigenous Law handbook entitled "Aboriginal Rights Litigation" (Eds. Magnet and Dorey) (Toronto : Butterworths, 2003).

In addition, Ms. Vella was associate commission counsel to the Ipperwash Inquiry which examined the events surrounding the shooting death of First Nations member, Dudley George, by an OPP officer during an occupation at Ipperwash Provincial Park. For more information on the Ipperwash Inquiry, go to Ms. Vella was interviewed with respect to her role as Commission Counsel by the Canadian Bar Association in Inquiring Minds, to review the article click here.

Susan Vella has appeared as lead counsel at all levels of court in civil sexual abuse and other matters, including the Supreme Court of Canada, the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the Superior Court of Justice (Divisional Court). She has conducted several civil sexual assault trials at the Superior Court of Justice (and the former Ontario Court of Justice - General Division) against both institutions and individual perpetrators. See for example: Bazley v. Curry, [1999] 2 S.C.R. 534; Jacobi v. Griffiths, [1999] 2 S.C.R. 570; K.L.B. v. British Columbia, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 403; M.B. v. British Columbia, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 477; and E.D.G. v. Hammer, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 459; P.D. v Allen, [2004] O.J. No. 3042; Polgrain Estate v. Toronto East General Hospital (2008), 293 D.L.R. (4th) 266 (C.A.); Evans v. Sproule, [2008] O.J. No. 4518. Ms. Vella has represented individuals against various religious institutions, school boards, children's aid agencies, the federal and provincial governments, police forces, health care facilities and other defendants.

Ms. Vella is often sought by the media for her perspective and comments on challenging sexual abuse and misconduct matters. Ms. Vella has been interviewed and quoted by several national publications, including the CBC, "Her voice is heard': Why some accusers pursue civil rather than criminal justice in harassment cases", The Globe and Mail, 'Catholic priest faces sentencing for sexual abuse', The National Post, "Lawsuit over sex abuse insurance could have consequences for future cases, experts say" and 'Ontario and Nova Scotia loosening rules on sex abuse cases, making it easier for victims to sue their attackers' and Maclean's, 'Lawsuits for mental pain becoming more common', 'Maclean's exclusive: Russell Williams offers a defence' and 'What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office'. Ms. Vella has also been interviewed and quoted by the Toronto Star, 'Tougher action urged to probe doctors guilty of sex abuse' and '30 years later, $215,000 for officer's sex assault', the Law Times, 'Firm ordered to pay $1.5 million in fees to charity', 'Lawyers call for higher damages in civil sexual assault cases' and '$125K libel award against sex abuse complainants sends chill, lawyers warn', and by the hosts of Square Off (CHCH), regarding the potentially chilling effects of the Court's decision Vanderkooy v. Vanderkooy et al., 2013 ONSC 4796, on sexual abuse victims. Recently, Ms. Vella was interviewed and quoted by The Lawyers Weekly, 'One sentence undoes sex assault trial', concerning the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to set aside a jury conviction and order a new trial in relation to an alleged sexual assault in R. v. C.K.D., [2016] ONCA 66, on the basis that the trial judge erred in instructing the jury on assessing the credibility of a 17-year-old witness who testified she had been assaulted by her stepbrother when she was 12. Ms. Vella was also interviewed and quoted by Chatelaine, 'Bill Cosby is suing his Canadian accuser. Can Ghomeshi sue his?', concerning the potential effects of Jian Gomeshi’s criminal trial on any future civil action(s) commenced by Jian Gomeshi and/or the complainants in the criminal proceedings.

Ms. Vella has been selected by her peers to be on the Best Lawyers'Best Lawyerslisting in the practice areas of personal injury litigation and Indigenous Law in specific recognition of her work representing survivors of sexual and institutional abuse and First Nations communities.


Call us at 416-548-9874 or send us an email to set up a free consultation. We serve clients throughout the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario and across Canada.