"On behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you in this chamber so central to our life as a country to apologise to aboriginal peoples for Canada's role in the Indian Residential Schools system. We are sorry."
Beginning in 1874, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children in Canada were forcibly enrolled in the 132 boarding schools run by Christian churches on behalf of the federal government.
Stripped of culture
Survivors say they suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse and that headmasters and teachers stripped them of their culture and language.
They also say that being placed in the residential schools left them disconnected from their families, communities and feeling "ashamed" of being born native.
|"All of us aboriginal people in some way have been impacted by the Indian residential school tragedy"|
Harry LaForme, chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission
It was "the darkest chapter in Canada's history", Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said.
"They tried to kill the Indian in the child, to eradicate any sense of Indian-ness from Canada," he said.
But he added: "What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada."
The programme has also been blamed for the poverty and desperation in native communities that has bred abuse, suicide and crime.
"It was cultural genocide," Ted Quewezance, a residential school alumni and director of the National Residential School Survivors' Society, said.
The government's apology is part of a $1.9bn settlement with 80,000 former students in 2006 - the largest settlement in Canadian history.
Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister, made a similar apology in February to thousands of aboriginal children who were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970 and sent to live with foster parents or in institutions.
Most of Canada's native residential schools, modelled after US-Indian industrial schools of the period, were shut down in the 1970s.
The last one closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan province.
Only the grotto remains at Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba, where Fontaine says he witnessed "harsh" beatings.
The school was only 4 km from his home on the Sagkeeng First Nation reservation, but he was allowed to see his Ojibway family for only a few hours each Sunday and on holidays.
"It was very hard on me being separated from my family for such a long time. It created anxiety, a lot of sadness," he said.
|About 150,000 aboriginal Canadians were placed|
into church-run residential schools
"We were often reminded of who we were, which was less than white people. We were called 'savages' at least once a day," he said.
His first day at school, in a dark dormitory split in two sections for 125 older and younger boys, "all you heard that night was kids crying", he recalled.
"It was scary. I was just a little boy who missed his mom and dad."
There are some 1.3 million native Canadians out of the country's total population of 33 million.
As part of the court settlement, a five-year commission headed by Canada's top native jurist was also appointed in April to probe abuses of natives at the schools.
Following the apology, the commission plans to hear testimony from thousands of survivors and officials, as well as gather and review millions of government and church documents to be made public for the first time.
Justice Harry LaForme, chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said "all of us aboriginal people in some way have been impacted by the Indian residential school tragedy."