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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a historic apology on behalf of the Canadian government for native residential schools and its decades-long policy of forced assimilation.

"Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," Mr. Harper said.

"The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language."

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The apology was quickly embraced by Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who addressed MPs from the floor of the House of Commons as dozens of residential school survivors watched on from the public gallery.

"This day testifies to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible," said Mr. Fontaine, who wore a traditional headdress.

"Never again will this House consider us the Indian problem just for being who we are. We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history."

"What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada," he said.

Mr. Harper began the ceremony by walking into the House of Commons with Mr. Fontaine and other aboriginal leaders, including Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Mike Cachagee, president of the National Residential School Survivors' Society, Beverly Jacobs of the Native Women's Association of Canada, and Métis National Council President Clément Chartier.

They were accompanied by a small group of aged residential school survivors, including 104-year-old Marguerite Wabano, who attended a residential school run by Roman Catholic grey nuns in Fort Albany, Ont., for two years beginning when she was seven years old.

As the native leaders and survivors sat in a circle, Mr. Harper began the apology.

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"On behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so vital, central to our life as a country, to apologize to aboriginal peoples for the role the government of Canada played in the Indian residential schools system."

Mr. Harper continued: "To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.

"We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize from having done this.

"We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this," the Prime Minister said.

"We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.

"Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry."

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Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion also apologized on behalf of the Liberal Party, which he noted had governed the country for 70 years of the last century.

"For too long the Canadian government chose to ignore the consequences of this tragedy," Mr. Dion said. "I am sorry Canada tried to erase your identity and culture."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton added their voices to the apology, each demanding that the government restore the nation-to-nation relationship between Ottawa and First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

"This Parliament chose to treat First Nations, Métis and Inuit people as not equally human," Mr. Layton said. "It set out to 'kill the Indian in the child.' That choice was wrong - horribly wrong."

The Harper government indicated at the outset of the apology that it had changed its mind about allowing aboriginal leaders to respond to the apology from the House of Commons floor.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harper said he would not alter Parliamentary tradition and accused the opposition of detracting from the importance of the event by raising the issue during Question Period.

But Government House Leader Peter Van Loan asked opposition MPs for consent Wednesday to allow the leaders who accompanied Mr. Harper into the House to respond to the apology.

It was the aboriginal response that resonated the most with William Asikinack, who watched the proceedings from him home in Regina, Sask.

"Those folks who spoke from the heart, especially the two women, were quite something else, and I was quite pleased they used their own language to start off with," Mr. Asikinack told globeandmail.com.

Mr. Asikinack attended a residential school in Brantford, Ont., in the 1940s, beginning when he was six-years-old. He spent six years at the school, which was nicknamed the "Mushhole" for the porridge served to children each morning. It was there that he contracted tuberculosis that left a leg crippled.

Mr. Asikinack, now head of the department of indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada in Saskatchewan, said Mr. Harper was "as sincere as any politician can be" in his apology. He called on the government to move forward and allow aboriginals to script their own education policies, including the reclamation of traditional languages.

Reacting to the apology, B.C.'s Premier Gordon Campbell said Mr. Harper's statement is critically important to all Canadians.

Mr. Campbell said he felt the prime minister was clear and unequivocal in accepting responsibility for the one-time government policy when he stood in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Mr. Campbell said it's the first step and now it's time to move on to reinforce aboriginal culture in the country as a defining strength in Canada.

But B.C. NDP Leader Carole James says there is a need for real action on the ground to make right the wrongs for First Nations people in the province.

The Prime Minister's message of healing was undercut Wednesday by one of his own MPs, who spoke sarcastically of the size of the residential schools settlement on talk radio.

"Along with this apology comes another four billion dollars in compensation for those who partook in the residential schools," said Tory MP Pierre Poilievre, adding dramatic emphasis to the $4-billion, during an appearance on CFRA Radio just before the apology. "Some of us are starting to ask, are we really getting value for all of this money and is money really going to solve the problem?"

Late Wednesday night, Mr. Poilievre issued a statement about his comments.

"I stated that aboriginals deserve protection under Canada's human rights laws and that the record dollars that the government is spending on aboriginals should reach the people in need," the e-mailed statement said.

'They can never deny what has happened to us'

The historic day in Ottawa began with sunrise prayers on the island below Parliament Hill, where about 100 natives burned tobacco to honour the spirits of those who have died. There were similar gatherings across the country.

Dozens of people gathered at the site of a former residential school near the small Nova Scotia community of Shubenacadie, north of Halifax, for a "letting-go ceremony."

"I'm hopeful that his apology will help me and other survivors move forward," said Terry Paul, chief of the Membertou band in Cape Breton, who was shipped to the school when he was five. "It's not just the end of something, but the beginning of a new relationship."

But another survivor of the school outright rejected Harper's apology.

"I'm not very impressed," said Gloria Maloney, a Mi'kmaq woman. "You can't undo the harm that we went through. I put in eight years in that dump and they were pretty cruel. My life was destroyed by going to that school and there's no way they can fix it."

Ms. Maloney's 44-year-old daughter, Amy, was more blunt. "It's not good enough," she said.

The Maloneys harsh opinion stood in contrast to the reaction from the crowd of 500 who listened in silence and gave the prime minister a standing ovation when he finished speaking.

Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the Northwest Territories, spent most of his childhood in a residential school. He watched at home in Yellowknife as Harper and other leaders spoke - and liked what he heard.

"To have a government today say, finally, yes, something was horribly wrong to treat us as less than human … I need that," he said. "Now, there's no turning back. They can never deny what has happened to us."

In Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask., nestled in a picturesque valley outside Regina, a group of about 200 residential school survivors and their loved ones braved a pelting rain to plant a tree and release balloons.

Chief Lawrence Joseph of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said that each person will feel differently about the apology.

"I will ask, respectfully, the survivors to analyze … this apology as it relates to them, and then, from there on … the healing process can begin."

Ellen Keewatin was not ready to forgive. She didn't attend a residential school herself, but both her parents did and both died before they got an apology.

"They can't undo the wrongs that they have done - we have a multitude of problems," Ms. Keewatin said. "I'm still angry. This does nothing to pacify me. Nothing whatsoever. I wish it did."

But Glen Anaquod, 62, urged his fellow survivors to put their experiences behind them even though his own memories of the mental and physical abuse are still fresh.

"When you dwell in the past, you can't move on," Mr. Anaquod said. "It's good to look back to learn what has happened, but we need to move on to become better."

Residential schools were mandatory for aboriginal children who were forced to learn English and adopt Christianity as part of government policy. About 150,000 students attended 130 church-run schools across Canada for much of the last century.

While many students say they received a good education, Ottawa acknowledged in 1998 that physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

The apology is part of a compensation and healing package expected to top $4-billion.

Residential Schools in Canada

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