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Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, in headdress, watches as Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologizes for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving residential schools. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons on Wednesday to say sorry to former students of native residential schools — in the first formal apology from a Canadian prime minister over the federally financed program.

"Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools," Harper said in Ottawa, surrounded by a small group of aboriginal leaders and former students, some of whom wept as he spoke.

"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.

"Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," he said to applause.

"The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language," Harper said.

"While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities."

Apology broadcast during nationwide events 

Above the floor in the Commons gallery, hundreds of former students, church representatives and others watched Harper's statement, which began at 3 p.m. ET. About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities throughout most of the last century and forced to attend residential schools.

'Today's apology is about a past that should have been completely different.' —Stéphane Dion, Liberal leader

Harper's speech was followed by a statement from Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.

"Today's apology is about a past that should have been completely different," he said. "But it must be also about the future. It must be about collective reconciliation and fundamental changes.

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Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion addresses the House during the government's apology to former students of native residential schools. ((CBC))

"It must be about moving forward together, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, into a future based on respect. It is about trying to find in each of us some of the immense courage that we see in the eyes of those who have survived."

NDP Leader Jack Layton denounced the residential schools program as "racist," and called Wednesday's event an important moment for Canada.

"It is the moment where we as a Parliament and as a country assume the responsibility for one of the most shameful eras of our history," Layton said in an emotional address.

"It is the moment to finally say we are sorry and it is the moment where we start to begin a shared future on equal footing through mutual respect and truth."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe offered his own apology, adding that the most meaningful expressions of regret are followed by concrete action.

"This is something that must be done concretely by the government …The federal government has not invested enough for young aboriginal people."

Televisions set up in a room outside the House and on the lawn of Parliament Hill broadcast the statement to overflow crowds, while more than 30 events were staged across the country so the apology could be viewed live.

While aboriginal leaders were not expected to have an opportunity to respond on the record in the House of Commons chamber, House leaders agreed at the last minute to allow it.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a former residential school student, was one of several aboriginal leaders who took the floor, saying the occasion "testifies nothing less than the accomplishment of the impossible."

"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.

"We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility for this dreadful chapter in our shared history. We heard the prime minister declare that this will never happen again. Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," Fontaine added.

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Connie Brooks, who attended the Shubenacadie Residential School in the early 1960s, during a "Letting Go" ceremony in Shubenacadie, N.S., on Wednesday. ((Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press))

Wednesday marked the first time a Canadian prime minister has formally apologized for the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in the now-defunct network of federally financed, church-run residential schools.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien offered a statement of reconciliation on behalf of the government in 1998, although it was largely rejected by members of the aboriginal community as lip service. In advance of Harper's apology, many have said they want to see a sincere, heartfelt apology from the prime minister.

Working business was cancelled in Parliament on Wednesday in order to mark the apology. The day began with a sunrise ceremony on an island in the Ottawa River behind Parliament Hill, where about 100 people gathered to say prayers for former residential school students who didn't live to see the historic event.

In partnership with Health Canada, the Assembly of First Nations arranged for counsellors to be available at Parliament Hill and other gatherings planned across Canada to provide support for those overwrought with emotion.

Survivors can call crisis line

The Assembly of First Nations said survivors watching the apology who need support can call a 24-hour toll-free crisis line at 1-866-925-4419. Other support information is also available on the AFN website.

Overseen by the Department of Indian Affairs, residential schools aimed to force aboriginal children to learn English, and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs as part of a government policy called "aggressive assimilation."

There were about 130 such schools in Canada, with some in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, from as early as the 19th century to 1996.

In September, the government formalized a $1.9-billion compensation plan for victims. The government has also established a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the legacy of the residential schools.

The commission was scheduled to begin its work this month.

With files from the Canadian Press