Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized Wednesday to native Canadians who were taken from their families and forced to attend state-funded schools aimed at assimilating them.
Harper, speaking in Parliament, said the treatment of children at the schools is a sad chapter in Canadian history. "We are sorry," he said.
The apology comes just months after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar gesture to the so-called Stolen Generations — thousands of the continent's Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.
In Canada, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society.
"The government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize," Harper said in an address televised live across Canada.
"We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, and that it created a void in many lives and communities and we apologize."
'Gave rise to abuse or neglect'
Many suffered physical and sexual abuse.
"These institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled and we apologize for failing to protect you," Harper said.
Hundreds of former students were invited to Ottawa to witness what native leaders call a pivotal moment for Canada's more than 1 million aboriginals, who today remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group.
There are more than 80,000 surviving students of the schools.
Eleven aboriginal leaders watched the apology from the floor of the House of Commons and hundreds of aboriginals watched from the public gallery and from the front lawn of Parliament.
"Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said from the floor of the House of Commons.
Fontaine wore a traditional native headdress and was allowed to speak from the floor after opposition parties demanded it.
"Never again will this House consider us an Indian problem for just being who we are," Fontaine said. "We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility."
Fontaine said the apology will go a long way toward repairing the relationship between aboriginals and the rest of Canada.
Wide-ranging reconciliation effort
In addition to the apology, a truth and reconciliation commission will examine government policy and take testimony from survivors. Officials have not yet set a date for when the commission will take testimony.
The truth commission was created as part of a $4.9 billion class action settlement in 2006 — the largest in Canadian history — between the government and churches and the surviving students.
Under the settlement, students who attended residential schools are eligible to receive $9,800 for the first year they attended one of the schools and $2,900 for every year after. Victims of physical and sexual abuse are eligible for additional funds.
Aboriginal Judge Harry LaForme will oversee the commission and will eventually travel across the country to hear stories from former students, teachers and others. The goal is to give survivors a forum to tell their stories and educate Canadians about a grim period in the country’s history.
'Intent was to destroy the Indian'
Michael Cachagee was 4 years old when he was taken from his parents and forced to attend a state-funded school aimed at stripping him of his aboriginal culture.
“The intent was to destroy the Indian,” Cachagee said of the decades-long government policy.
Cachagee spent 12½ years at three different schools in Canada beginning in 1944.
“I was beaten. I was put in tubs of hot water. I suffered great pains of hunger. I was force fed rotten food. They called me all kinds of names,” he said.
In 1998, Canada's former Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart expressed "profound regret" for the establishment of residential schools, but aboriginals did not consider the statement sufficient. Many students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs.
That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indian leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
Fontaine was one of the first to go public with his past experiences of physical and sexual abuse.
“All kinds of abuse was inflicted on innocent children,” Fontaine said. “There are thousands of these stories, all of them true. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.”