The lawyers have written a letter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) demanding the courts appoint a prosecutor to investigate the children’s deaths as a crime against humanity.
“Continuing to cover it up is a crime against humanity itself, both in international law and domestically,” lawyer Brendan Miller said.
“The longer Canada continues to cover this up and continues to refuse to release the evidence they have, they’re committing crimes against humanity themselves.”
The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the discovery of the remains last week after ground-penetrating radar confirmed what members had long said about the former school, which had been the largest institution of its kind in Canada.
The school was operated mostly under a Catholic order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, founded in 1816.
In existence from 1890 to 1978, and with a wide regional grasp, Kamloops had the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system. One report says enrollment peaked in the early 1950s at 500 students.
Miller believes there is enough evidence for the ICC to investigate the case, including the role of the Catholic Church, as a crime against humanity.
“Because these crimes against humanity were committed on Canadian soil by agents or employees or actors of the Vatican, the ICC has jurisdiction over it.”
So far, the Catholic Church has refused to issue an official apology for its role in residential schools, even when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis during a visit to the Vatican in 2017.
Since the discovery of the unmarked burial site, Trudeau has vowed to take action.
“We are looking for how we can support Indigenous communities in their grief and in their request for answers,” Trudeau said during a Monday press conference.
But Miller said the Canadian government has provided nothing but resistance over the years in attempts to uncover details about what happened in residential schools. He says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government to do this in 2015 but the government ignored the request.
“The government has been litigating that issue, resisting, resisting disclosing documents. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandate, they wouldn’t expand it in order to do further investigations,” he said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2009 report also called on the federal government to fund a search for further unmarked graves to the tune of $1.5 million. The government in power at the time, led by former prime minister Stephen Harper, refused the demand.
In the 2019 budget, the federal government infused at least $33 million into developing and maintaining a registry of residential school deaths, as well as working to maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries.
Calgary lawyer Donna Kenney-Glans said the time for gestures is over, and she signed the request because she wants answers.
“I think Canadians want to do this right. I want to know, just like most of my fellow Canadians, are there other mass grave sites out there, what don’t we know and what should we know? Then we can figure out who’s culpable,” Kennedy-Glans said.
Kennedy-Glans said these types of requests to the ICC have been denied previously, but there was also not the same type of evidence as there is now.
“Something doesn’t feel quite right here and we need to know.”
The group of lawyers is also calling on other Canadian lawyers to sign the application.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
— With files from Global News national online journalist Rachel Gilmore and B.C. online supervisor Amy Judd