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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 22:49 GMT

image: [ BBC Despatches ]

In Canada, the federal government has offered a formal expression of regret together with an assistance package worth US$245 million for native aboriginals who suffered physical and sexual abuse widespread in residential schools that operated across the country until the 1970s. The apology forms a central part of the government response to a penetrating Royal Commission report issued a year ago which presented a devastating account of everyday conditions facing Canada's aboriginal people. The report was especially critical of the officially sanctioned system of residential schools run for over a century by Catholic, Methodist and Anglican churches which took native children out of their tribal communities and subjected them to an often brutal regime of assimilation and enforced spoken English. Wednesday's government announcement also set out an elaborate framework for establishing native financial independence and community development. As Gary Fletcher in Vancouver reports the scheme is designed to offer a new start in relations with Canada's six hundred native bands.

The dreadful catalogue of deprivation, mistreatment and official neglect suffered by native children in the residential schools was shown in the Royal Commission's 1996 report as sadly representative of the history of native people since the founding of Canada. The commission proposed an ambitious twenty-year multi-billion dollar programme of economic aid to counter native unemployment, impoverished housing and health conditions.

The government response, given at Wednesday's formal ceremony, is much more modest in scale. Indian Affairs Minister, Jane Stewart, offered to face historical wrongs in a statement of reconciliation and to establish a new partnership between government and first nations.

The Minister committed funding aimed at providing community based help for those damaged by the residential schools, but social and economic revival of native communities is largely to depend on the creation of effective self-government under a series of federally supported initiatives. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, formally accepted the apology and called it the beginning of a new era.

But a spokesman for other native groups offered a forceful declaration that the apology and financial support don't go nearly far enough.

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