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Packed House at Winnipeg Residential Schools Conference

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More than 2,500 people are packed into a three-day conference under way in Winnipeg that is exploring the generational effects of Canada’s residential schools system on the aboriginal population and the nation at large.

Attendance at the Hidden Legacy Conference, put together by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), is much higher than the AMC expected and ranges from former students to people employed in the fields of education and corrections, CBC News and other Canadian media reported on February 23.

The conference is exploring the reasons behind continued high rates of incarceration, addiction and low education rates among children of residential schools survivors, AMC Grand Chief Ron Evans told the CBC. He said the scope of healing needs to be widened.

Previous events, sponsored by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the federal agency with the charge of healing the nation), focused mostly on survivors.

But to move beyond survivors’ experience it’s necessary to "break the cycle of what the residential school experience did to their parents and grandparents," Evans said. "That's why it's important people talk about it."

From the late 1870s through 1996, about 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada. The government-funded, mostly church-run institutions were created specifically to assimilate young aboriginals into European-Canadian society, the CBC explains.

What that did was cut family and cultural ties, leave the children wide open to physical and sexual abuse, and traumatize entire generations. Surviving students—there are about 80,000, according to the TRC—and their children and families are still struggling with the aftereffects.

"There were seven generations—in some communities eight generations—of children who went through the residential school system so the effect is on eight or nine generations of children," said Justice Murray Sinclair, who chairs the three-member TRC, to PostMedia Press on February 22. "And in each of those generations they had children. It will take a number of generations to get away from it. I'm convinced I will not see a complete reconciliation during my lifetime—and certainly not in the commission's. But my hope is the commission can set the goal clearly."

After the country’s aboriginals sued the federal government for the damage inflicted by the school system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology in 2008 for the abuse the school survivors suffered, Post Media said, and the federal government paid $1.9 billion in compensation.

The TRC is continuing to host conferences as well, including an upcoming March forum on building a resource center to house information about this period of history, and a series of hearings in the north between March 15 and May 7 at which survivors are encouraged to share their stories.

The commission is also still accepting proposals for memorial projects commemorating what happened at the schools. Deadline for submissions is 2 p.m. on March 18.