Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes a declaration of national regret for forced assimilations that 'caused great harm.'
But the hours before the landmark statement were marked by wrangling over whether native leaders were adequately consulted about the content, and anger that they would not be allowed to respond in the House of Commons. Just before Harper's speech, opposition leaders led a successful motion to allow aboriginal representatives to reply in the chamber.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, wearing a feather headdress, took the floor to declare that the occasion "testifies nothing less than the accomplishment of the impossible." In 1990, he was one of the first to come forward with his story of abuse and push for an apology.
"For the generation that will follow us, we bear witness today. . . . Never again will this House consider us the Indian problem just for being who we are," he said, as tribal members cheered and beat a drum in the gallery. "Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry."
Some survivors, as the former schoolchildren are widely called, said the apology came only grudgingly under intense pressure from native groups, and must be matched by action. But it is widely recognized as a significant step for a government that had previously sought to limit its responsibility for the harm caused by its assimilation policy.
Several churches offered apologies in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the government's head of Indian and Northern Affairs made a statement of reconciliation in 1998. A lawsuit settled in 2006 created a $1.9-billion compensation fund, and an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched June 1.
But Wednesday's statement is the government's first formal expression of responsibility and remorse for the forced assimilation program.