Page last updated at 22:38 GMT, Wednesday, 11 June 2008 23:38 UK

Canada apology for native schools

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes the apology

Canada has apologised for forcing about 150,000 aboriginal children to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools aimed at assimilating them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the apology in parliament in Ottawa, in front of hundreds of ex-schoolchildren. The schools operated from the late 19th Century until the 1990s, although most of them shut in the 1970s.

Accounts of physical and sexual abuse at the institutions, known as residential schools, have also emerged.

Most of the churches that ran the schools apologised in the 1980s and 1990s.

Australia apologised for a similar policy in February.

'We are sorry'

Mr Harper said aboriginal Canadians had been waiting "a very long time" for an apology.

"I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history."

He said the system had been based on the assumption that "aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal".

Two Metis children standing either side of an Inuit child from the All Saints residential school in Shingle Point, Yukon, 1930. JF Moran/Library and Archives Canada/PA-102086

He went on: "We now recognise that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologise for failing to protect you.

"The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry."

The apology was quickly welcomed by Assembly of First Nations head Phil Fontaine, present with other aboriginal leaders in the chamber as Mr Harper spoke.

"We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history," Mr Fontaine said.

"Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," said Mr Fontaine, one of the first former schoolchildren to go public with his experiences of physical and sexual abuse at residential school.

Settlement deal

The federal government acknowledged 10 years ago that physical and sexual abuse in the schools was rampant.

Made up of Indians, known as First Nations people, Metis and Inuit
Population 1.2 million out of total 33 million Canadians
48% of aboriginals are under 25 years old (31% for non-aboriginals)
Unemployment rate for 25-64 year olds almost three times the national rate
34% do not complete secondary school (15% for non-aboriginals)
Suicide rate among young aboriginals almost twice the national average
Sources: StatsCan, Aboriginal Health Organisation

Many schoolchildren recall being beaten for speaking their languages, and losing touch with their parents and culture.

The legacy of the system has been cited by aboriginals as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction among their people.

The apology is part of a C$2bn ($1.9bn; 990m) deal between the government, churches and the surviving former schoolchildren.

Under the agreement, they have begun receiving financial compensation for their suffering.

A truth and reconciliation commission has also been set up, which will be granted access to government and church records.

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