The Manitoba government has officially apologized to indigenous families caught in what is known as the Sixties Scoop — the first such apology by a province for Canada's former practice of forced adoption and relocation of aboriginal children.

"Today as premier I would like to apologize on behalf of the Province of Manitoba for the Sixties Scoop," Premier Greg Selinger said Thursday in Winnipeg.

"It was a practice that has left intergenerational scars and cultural loss. With these words of apology and regret, I hope all Canadians will join me in recognizing this historic injustice. I hope they will join me in acknowledging the pain and suffering of the thousands of children who were taken from their homes."

Selinger said it's important Canadians recognize the "difficult truths" of the Scoop.

"I hope that we can join together down a new path of reconciliation, healing and co-operation. There is a long road ahead of us. It takes time to heal great pain."

Manitoba's Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson called Geraldine Shingoose, a residential school survivor, to the podium during a noontime gathering at the Manitoba Legislature ahead of the premier's announcement.

"I was asked to come here and say special prayers on this special day, historical day, this beautiful day with all these beautiful survivors standing here with their families supporting them, their friends," Shingoose said.

"There's a natural bond that happens when a woman gives birth … I want to acknowledge those mothers who lost their children. The children who were sent across the oceans, into the States, all over Canada, who were taken for years, I pray for them."

20,000 taken

Between the 1960s and 1980s, an estimated 20,000 indigenous children were taken from their parents by child-welfare services and placed with mostly white families. As a result, many lost touch with their culture and traditional language.

"As I was getting ready for today, I remember all those tears, feelings of loss and identity," Coleen Rajotte, another survivor, told the crowd. She said sharing stories will help survivors get one step closer to reconciliation.

Sixties Scoop survivor

Kinzie Halcrow was overcome with emotion at the Sixties Scoop apology ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature Thursday. He was born in Manitoba but grew up in Texas. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Rajotte told the story of a Scoop survivor who was continually raped by her adopted father and became pregnant at the age of 12. Another story she shared was of an indigenous boy who was sent to a family in Minnesota, where he was consistently beaten by one of his adopted parents.

"Today brings hope to me, today makes me remember everything, but I know that it is also going to bring about more recognition and understanding to the Sixties Scoop," Rajotte said,

She said she'd like to see more resources put toward counselling for Scoop survivors, and a national media campaign in the U.S. to help adoptees connect with their Canadian birth families.

'I endured a lot'

Christine Merasty was one of those native children taken from their homes.

Merasty was removed from her aboriginal family in 1970 when she was four months old.

"I endured a lot of racist remarks. It hurt me," said Merasty.

Sixties Scoop apology

Four First Nations men took part in a drum circle during a noontime ceremony ahead of the Manitoba government's Sixties Scoop apology. (CBC)

She was adopted by a farming couple in rural Manitoba. Although she says she has a good relationship with her adoptive parents, Merasty maintains that being separated from her biological family was wrong.

"As you are a child growing up, you have all these questions in your mind and you are thinking, 'Why didn't they want me? Why didn't they love me? … Why did I end up over here?'" she said.

"My questions now are, 'Who gave you the right? Who made that decision for me?'"

Robbed a generation

Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he's pleased by the province's gesture, but added an apology without action is meaningless.

Christine Merasty Sixties Scoop

Christine Merasty was taken from her mother's arms shortly after her birth at a hospital on Christmas Day in 1970. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"To acknowledge that the wrong has been done and that things will be better in the future. The real question though is how are they going to change?" Sinclair told CBC News. 

Sinclair said other jurisdictions and other levels of government need to acknowledge their roles.

"Everybody needs to accept the fact that they have been responsible for the perpetuation of the cultural genocide that we identified," said Sinclair.

He said the Sixties Scoop robbed a generation of aboriginal children of their identities.

"Lots of children have been told that they are something other than what they are, so they've been denied access to their culture, which I think is a human right," Sinclair said.

"We have the right to know who we are, we have the right to be what we were given to be at the beginning of life, and so to take that away from them was a breach of their rights," Sinclair said.

Very worried, very concerned

First Nations leaders want more than an apology.

Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who represents First Nations in the northern part of the province, said families impacted by the Scoop are still feeling its effects. 

Justice Murray Sinclair

Justice Murray Sinclair says an apology without action is meaningless. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"People who were taken from their families are still trying to come back and go to their roots," he said. "We are going to be challenging the government that they call for a commission."

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, said he wants to see a plan to reunite families.

"I commend a government that is bold enough to go out and admit they are wrong but … if the plan is just to apologize and say, 'I'm just going to wash my hands of this responsibility,' then I get very worried and very concerned," said Chartrand.

Adoptees are also calling for a federal apology and compensation for experiences many say were as traumatic as those suffered by residential school survivors. There are already two class-action lawsuits before the courts.

Manitoba Government Apology to Survivors of Sixties Scoop

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With files from Karen Pauls