OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada, addressing one of the darkest chapters in its history, formally apologized on Wednesday for forcing 150,000 aboriginal children into grim residential schools, where many say they were sexually and physically abused.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a Parliamentary chamber packed with legislators and aboriginal representatives that there could be no excuses for what happened at the church-run schools, which mainly operated from the 1870s to the 1970s.
"The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry," Harper said in a 15-minute address, at one point fighting back tears.
Native leaders said they hoped the apology would lead to a new era of reconciliation between Canadians and the often marginalized aboriginal population, which routinely suffers from poor living conditions and high unemployment.
The residential schools were initially set up to educate native children but later became part of a government campaign to assimilate aboriginals and eradicate their culture -- "to kill the Indian in the child," as some put it at the time.
"There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail," Harper said.
Contemporary accounts suggest up to half the children in some institutions died of tuberculosis and other diseases.
Many survivors say they were abused mentally, physically and sexually. Children were beaten for speaking their own languages and told they would be damned unless they converted to Christianity.
Harper received a lengthy standing ovation when he finished. The public galleries in the House of Commons were full of native activists, several wearing feathered headdresses and embroidered clothes.
Twelve aboriginal representatives -- including 104-year-old Marguerite Wabano, the oldest school survivor -- sat on chairs in a circle in front of Harper.
Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, said the apology "for this dreadful chapter in our shared history" would ensure the survival of Canada's aboriginal people.
"Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," he told Parliament, his voice breaking.
"It is possible to end our racial nightmare together. The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us," said Fontaine, wearing a full native headdress.
Native leaders say the damage done by the schools is directly responsible for many of the social problems that plague the country's 1 million aboriginals today.
Willie Blackwater, a survivor who launched a landmark 1995 lawsuit against the school supervisor who repeatedly raped him, said the apology had surpassed his expectations.
"It was actually really awesome to hear the prime minister speak those words of apology ... it was quite a moving moment for me. I was crying through most of that," he told Reuters.
In May 2006, Canada reached a C$1.9 billion ($1.9 billion) settlement with the roughly 90,000 school survivors.
The settlement created a truth and reconciliation commission which started work on June 1 and will spent the next five years hearing from school survivors across Canada.
Harper later attended an aboriginal ceremony and signed two copies of the apology, which will be hung in Parliament.
The scandal is reminiscent of what happened during the same period in Australia, where at least 100,000 aboriginal children were removed from their homes. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the "Stolen Generations" in February.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson