WINNIPEG - The chairman of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into the violation of children at residential schools says student-on-student abuse is emerging as a major issue that must be addressed.

"It wasn't anticipated," Justice Murray Sinclair said Monday during a speech in Winnipeg.

"It was always anticipated that the major focus of reconciliation would be between communities and the churches, between the aboriginal population and the churches and the aboriginal population and the government."

But the issue of students abusing their peers is a complex problem, not the least of which because many have to live near their abusers in small communities, he said. Some alleged abusers are elders, work for band councils, are community leaders or even family members.

"We shouldn't ignore them and we can't ignore them," Sinclair said. "They need to be able to get on with their lives and be able to live their lives as fully as possible. That means we have to address their needs in terms of reconciling themselves with the individuals who are still part of their lives."

The $60-million commission is part of a landmark compensation deal made between the federal government, the Crown and residential school survivors. As it holds hearings across Canada, the commission is expected to hear graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse.

About 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend the government schools over much of the last century. The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.

Some residential school survivors say it will be difficult for many to share their stories of abuse they suffered at the hands of their peers.

Michael Cachagee, executive director of the National Residential School Survivors' Society, said some in remote communities have learned to live side-by-side with their abusers and others aren't ready for the revelations that could come out of the commission's work.

Many in small communities went to the same schools and live on the same reserves.

"And then all of a sudden, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission comes along," Cachagee said. "All of a sudden, you find out your father-in-law abused someone else on your side of the family. We cautioned them about that."

The commission should have done a better job reaching out to survivors, helping them to buy into the process, he said.

Many see Sinclair and other lawyers involved in the commission on the same level as those who established the residential schools in the first place, Cachagee said.

"A lot of those survivors don't want anything to do with it," he said.

Sinclair said he knows he's going to have to work hard to restore the credibility of the commission.

People lost some faith in the process after infighting forced the resignation of former chairman Justice Harry LaForme and two other commissioners. Some survivors were finally prepared to tell their personal stories only to see the commission essentially dissolve temporarily, he said.

"When the commissioners themselves are unable to reconcile their differences, that's not a good message to give," he said. "It delayed things. Those people who were ready a year ago began to lose hope."

Sinclair said he hopes to move the commission's headquarters to Winnipeg by the end of the year since the majority of residential school survivors are from the West. Such a move would bring the commission closer to the people and show its independence from Ottawa, he added.

"At the end of the day, five years from now, we will not all be healed," Sinclair said. "We will not all be reconciled. But at least we will have had an opportunity to have a conversation."