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A woman is comforted at a Sixties Scoop gathering before a provincial apology. Sixty Scoop adoptees and supporters gather at the Manitoba Legislature to hear an apology from Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger in Winnipeg, Thursday, June 18, 2015.John Woods/The Canadian Press

Manitoba has become the first province to apologize for the mass adoption of aboriginal children into non-aboriginal families, a historic mea culpa that some survivors hope will spur other governments to follow suit.

Premier Greg Selinger rose in the provincial legislature Thursday and expressed regret for the so-called Sixties Scoop, a period widely regarded as connected to today's disproportionate number of aboriginal children in foster care.

"I would like to apologize on behalf of the Province of Manitoba for the Sixties Scoop," Mr. Selinger said, adding that the dark chapter, which stripped children of their culture and identities, will be incorporated into the province's education curriculum. "It was a practice that has left intergenerational scars and cultural loss."

Child-welfare workers across the country removed thousands of aboriginal children from their homes and placed them with non-aboriginal families in Canada and the United States. The wide-scale apprehension extended beyond the 1960s, but that is the decade that saw the most adoptions, some of which led to physical and sexual abuse.

Maggie-Blue Waters, a Cree adoptee who was taken from her family in Northern Saskatchewan during the early 1960s, when she was four years old, said she hopes Manitoba's "brave" apology will raise awareness and spur similar action in other provinces.

"All that I have lived, [the Premier] just validated," she said from her home in central Saskatchewan, near where she was raised by a non-native couple who renamed her Joanne. "Today, I'm hearing it is okay to be indigenous."

The apology comes two weeks after the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its damning report detailing the treatment of children in the government-funded, church-run Indian Residential School system, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant. The report, which said the forced assimilation amounted to "cultural genocide," called on governments to commit to reducing the number of aboriginal children in care, in part by working harder to keep families together.

Mr. Selinger said it is important to "acknowledge and appreciate" the meaning of the words "cultural genocide."

"The reality is that, like residential schools, the effects of the Sixties Scoop remain with us today," he said. "The human impact on families and communities are profound and cannot easily be reconciled."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008 for the horrific treatment of children in residential schools, and some survivors have received federal compensation for what they endured. Sixties Scoop adoptees have been fighting for similar recognition, with some joining class-action lawsuits in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Tony Merchant, the lawyer representing claimants in the three Prairie provinces, said he will include the Premier's statement in his certification filings, which also name the federal government. The apology, he said, will inevitably improve the suits' chances of going forward because it shows "some basis in fact."

In a statement, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs cautioned that the sincerity of Mr. Selinger's remarks should be measured by the actions the province takes in the months and years to come. It also said the public apology marks a "private opportunity" for survivors to begin their healing.

For Ms. Waters, who remembers being apprehended outside her band office and dressed up for a photograph later shown to prospective adoptive parents, the apology is, indeed, a step toward reconciliation. "It's our time," she said.

But for others, such as Manitoba adoptee Christine Merasty, the statement is too little, too late.

She was taken from her mother in the early 1970s, when she was just four months old, and raised in rural Manitoba. Her mother was a residential school survivor and later became one of Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women; her body was found on a highway outside Winnipeg.

"They didn't give my family a chance," Ms. Merasty said ahead of the apology. "I had a family searching for me for 20 years, wanting me."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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