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Never before had any words been so anticipated.

I stood in a hotel ballroom with 1,000 residential school survivors and their families to watch the Prime Minister say sorry for what Canada had done. For abducting young children, then letting sanctioned officials beat and molest them. For letting those children die.

It was like any other aboriginal gathering at first - people laughing, joking around, hugging old friends. Weathered brown faces smiling, still barren of tears. But there was a ticking time bomb present, and nervous tension all around because everyone knew what was about to go off. There were songs and prayers leading up to it, an attempt to levee the deluge that was about to wash over the room.

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There was a big screen on one end. On the other, TV cameras and reporters. In the middle, people who had been stolen from their families as young children, only to return years later, broken.

I was there that day last week at the Radisson Hotel in Winnipeg covering the apology for CBC. Being Anishinaabe, I felt I had to be there - even though I have no direct connection to the residential school experience. Only a handful of people from my home community in Central Ontario went to one. And, luckily, no one from my family.

Still, anyone here could have easily been one of my aunties or uncles. For more than a century, the government instilled a common Indian shame that spanned communities and generations. The people here had endured the most extreme incarnation of that shame.

Before everything went to air, the event's master of ceremonies asked for a moment of silence for those who had died at these schools, and for those who had passed on in the years after and didn't have a chance to hear this apology. That sombre silence lifted a barrage of emotions into the air. But it wasn't raw. People wept silently, wiped their eyes and hugged others close. These emotions were raw decades ago, but by this point they had been fermenting, recycled over and over. It was like a thick smoke had risen from a smouldering fire, and you couldn't escape it.

This moment was the most poignant reminder for people who were trying to forget, and for those who were still trying to cope. The smoke from that volatile but silent fire was suffocating everyone. But it would also help them breathe.

And everyone was holding their breath. Waiting for a few words. It wasn't just words to these people, though. It was justification for everything wrong that had happened in their lives, and will continue to go wrong. All this involved, at the least, people who were innocent children who spent their childhoods away from their most loved ones; at the worst, people who had had their way of life beaten out of them, people who were molested into believing it will always be wrong to be "Indian."

It was all Canada's fault, and they were here to hear Canada admit it.

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The moment came and went as quickly as words can be spoken. Right after, most of the survivors didn't know what to think. The ones I spoke with, anyway. I guess it was kind of like when someone says sorry to you. You accept it, but you can't forget why that person said sorry in the first place.

But this was multiplied by thousands. Not only was it a watershed moment in Canadian history - it was a real opportunity to open the gate to healing.

And then, people started telling me their stories.

"They took me away when I was 6. The school was on a hill not far from my home. I could see my parents on a clear day, but I could only talk to them once a year."

"I can't make a fist because they kept breaking my fingers."

"They took me night after night and had sex with me."

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These stories are what will finally heal our people. Survivors now feel legitimized, to some degree. They can talk about what happened to them, because now they know it's not their fault. It is this country's fault. It's okay to feel that pain. They will confront it, and finally end these cycles of abuse.

This experience changed me. I knew the stories, but I was not prepared to feel the collective sorrow I did that day, the emotions that hung heavy and forced their way into the hearts and minds of onlookers. People who didn't know what it was like to be in a school set up to kill who you were, but to make sure you were still breathing at the end of it.

Now the healing begins. The government has said its part and now it says it will listen. A commission is about to get under way, going across the country and collecting the sad and tragic stories that are finally grabbing the national spotlight. To compile them and make sure such a brutal injustice never happens again.

And I am confident the love and respect that is the basis of aboriginal culture across Canada is what will start a new fire for our people. One that will never go out.

Waubgeshig Rice is a reporter for CBC News at Six, Manitoba. He lives in Winnipeg.

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