Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologizes in the House of Commons for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving residential schools on Wednesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Aboriginal Canadians flew to Ottawa from thousands of kilometres away, they gathered by the hundreds around the country and watched TVs at schools and community centres, and they listened closely as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepared to deliver an apology on Wednesday for the horrible treatment of aboriginal children at residential schools.

And then the historic apology was spoken. The reaction came shortly after from aboriginal leaders who had gathered in the House of Commons. They spoke earnestly and directly to Harper and to other politicians.

"The memories of residential schools sometimes cuts like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us," said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Hundreds waited on the lawn at Parliament Hill to listen to the tone of Harper's voice and search for sincerity, as 11 aboriginal leaders, some in traditional clothing like Fontaine, sat in a circle in front of the Speaker in the House of Commons, a rare happening during what CBC-TV called simply "The Apology" on its broadcast headline.

Harper called the schools a "sad chapter" in the country's history. The government, he said, recognizes that the assimilation of aboriginal children was wrong and "has caused great harm and has no place in our country." The policy was profoundly damaging to the language and heritage of Aboriginal Peoples, said Harper, who added that the schools' legacy includes social problems that persist in communities today.

"We apologize for having done this," he said, later asking for forgiveness.

After Harper said he was sorry, some people outside the Parliament Buildings began to cry and wiped tears from their eyes.

"Today, Canada comes face to face with one of the darkest chapters of its history," said Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion just moments after Harper finished his speech, as each federal political leader got a chance to speak. "Parents and children were made to feel worthless."

For too long, governments refused to recognize the tragedy, Dion said, adding that the Liberals were in power for much of the time the schools were in existence and offering, too, an apology for a system that he said was built to punish aboriginal Canadians.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said it was impossible to erase the scars but the apology was necessary. He urged the government to follow it with concrete action.

It's been a "Canadian disgrace" that the government has not backed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Duceppe said, getting a loud ovation.

New Democratic Leader Jack Layton, who was clearly emotional, said that he was sorry for one of the most shameful parts of Canadian history and that it was a time now to live together on an equal footing. He said that each survivor of the residential schools should receive the recognition that they deserve.

'Achievement of the impossible'

And then it was time for the aboriginal leaders gathered at the House of Commons to speak. Initially, they were not going to speak in the House, but politicians decided to allow them at the last minute.

"This day testifies to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible," Fontaine said.

"Never again will the House consider us the 'Indian problem' just for us being who we are," he said. "Finally we heard Canada say it was sorry."

He acknowledged much more is to be done but that it was a "new dawn." It is now possible, he said, to end the "racial nightmare" together.

Patrick Brazeau, of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, called it a historic day and a positive step forward and thanked Harper for doing something his predecessors had not. He said he was proud to be an aboriginal Canadian.

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization, spoke in Inuktitut to show that the language and culture are still strong, she said.

Simon said that she dreamed of the day an apology would come and thought it might never happen, and that the pain and scars will still be there, but a new era has begun. Dignity, confidence and respect must be at the forefront of future efforts, she said.

Beverley Jacobs, president of Native Women's Association of Canada, told the House that residential schools took away the matriarchal system but it is coming back. She thanked the government for its apology.

"But in return, the Native Women's Association wants respect," she said, getting a standing ovation in the House.

A day to remember

Hundreds gathered to watch the apology at the University of Winnipeg, including Kelly Houle, who listened closely as the prime minister spoke.

She didn't attend residential school, but her late mother did. Houle said she accepts the apology, but it does not erase painful memories.

"The full story of the residential school system's impact on our people has yet to be told," said Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit, an umbrella group of B.C. First Nations.

"The responses to the apology are both individual and collective. It is extremely important that we respect the many survivors who, in their own discretion and time, will consider the prime minister's apology and determine how, in their own interest, each of them will deal with it. Collectively, we celebrate and stand on the dignity of who we are and celebrate our survival," John said in a release issued by the First Nations Leadership Council, which includes a number of aboriginal groups in B.C.

"Our first thoughts today are for our elders," said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief John Beaucage of Ontario. "Many of them have suffered lifelong physical and emotional pain because of their residential school experiences.

"We are so proud that many Anishinabek lived long enough to hear Canada's apology to them. But the true test of Mr. Harper's words will be his government's actions to help our children have a better future than their parents and grandparents."

Each of the thousands who waited to hear the apology has her or his individual story.

Diane Louis, from the Okanagan Indian Band near Vernon, B.C., spent five years at the residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and most of her life recovering from what happened there. Louis said it started on the first day, when she was taken from her grandmother in a cattle truck.

She spent decades trying to relearn her language because she wasn't allowed to speak it.

Herman Alpine, who spent his childhood at the St. Eugene residential school near Cranbrook, B.C., said the abuse started the day he arrived, when a priest yanked his long hair and cut it off, causing him to live in constant fear after that.

He was strapped after speaking his own language, and said he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of other students, abuse that was overlooked by the priest. In Nova Scotia, First Nations people retraced the steps to the site of a residential school in Shubenacadie, which 2,000 Mi'kmaq and Maliseet children from around Atlantic Canada were forced to attend until 1968.

In St. John's, they gathered at the Native Friendship Centre to watch Harper speak. Aboriginal Canadians also gathered in Iqaluit and Yellowknife.

In Winnipeg, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs hosted an event that featured performers who are children or grandchildren of residential school students. Outside of Edmonton at the River Cree Resort, people gathered to watch the apology at an event that featured an aboriginal comedian, singing and hoop dancing, as well as grief counsellors.

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

From as early as the 19th century to 1996, there were about 130 schools in Canada, in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

The Inuit in Labrador were represented by three members who flew to Ottawa to hear the apology in person at Parliament. They were in a unique situation, though, as a boarding school in North West River, in central Labrador, has not been recognized by Ottawa as a residential school because it was not operated by the Canadian government. And they were not formally invited to Ottawa for the apology.

"We're probably not feeling the same as the other people. The apology is not intended for us," Nora Ford said in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Tuesday, as she prepared to board the flight to Ottawa.

Politics of an apology

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said an apology was needed in order for the country to move on. He told the Canadian Press that "this is an important way for us to make some of that right."

Reaction from commentators in the national media varied, with much of it focusing on the political aspect of the apology.

Don Martin, writing in the National Post on Monday, before the apology, said: "Compared to the Chinese head tax or Japanese internment camp apologies, this will elevate grovelling to an art form by a Parliament that has already had plenty of experience pleading for forgiveness on this file."

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist with the Globe and Mail, pointed out Wednesday it was the Harper government that "killed the multibillion-dollar Kelowna Accord that would have helped natives cope with real problems."

He added that "it will be a curious event for those who remember that the antecedents of the Conservative Party never spilled their guts" for Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.

A Toronto Star editorial said: "Harper's apology ought to compel Canadians to look critically and unflinchingly at their past and help set the relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals on a better path."

The editorial later said: "This unspeakable legacy is still playing out in aboriginal communities across the country in the form of suicide, substance abuse, family breakdown and despair."