Dene who attended residential schools in Canada's North received an emotional apology Wednesday from the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Northwest Territories.
Bishop Murray Chatlain of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith addressed Dene leaders and others at the Dene Nation's meeting late Wednesday in Inuvik, N.W.T.
As some in the audience wiped away tears, Chatlain asked for forgiveness during an 11-minute speech.
"I am here before you and say that I am sorry, and I ask your forgiveness for the sins of our church," Chatlain said.
"Having listened to many people and hearing their deep pain, I want to apologize for our disruption of families and parenting, our involvement in the devaluing of aboriginal language, culture and spirituality, our association with the government of Canada in their policy of assimilation, and our failure to protect children from serious physical and sexual abuse."
Chatlain's apology came nearly one month after Pope Benedict XVI offered an expression of sorrow and regret for the abuse aboriginal students suffered at Canadian residential schools run by the Catholic Church.
A total of about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children across Canada were taken from their families to attend the schools from as early as the 19th century to 1996.
Chatlain said some of the people who worked in residential schools did so without knowing the real agenda of the government's policy to assimilate aboriginal children. Those workers were part of that agenda nonetheless, he said.
"We participated in a system that sought to strip away aboriginal language and culture," he said.
Following the address, Chatlain heard from Dene chiefs from across the Northwest Territories, some of whom shared their own painful memories of attending residential schools.
"My generation, we lost our language," said Chief Wilbert Firth of Fort McPherson, N.W.T.
"That's why you don't hear me speak my language in here."
Francois Paulette, a former chief of the Smith Landing First Nation in Fort Smith, N.W.T., said he realized when he was at a residential school that the Catholic Church was going against one of its own commandments: "The one that says, 'Thou shall not steal,'" he said.
"They stole me from my land, they stole me from my brothers and my sisters," Paulette added.
Many chiefs said they accepted the church's apology, and hope it will help both the Dene and the church move ahead.
Standing beside Chatlain, Paulette thanked him and gave him a bundle of sweetgrass as a gift.
Chatlain said he plans to give a similar apology to representives of the Inuvialuit at a later date.