Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official government apology Wednesday to native Canadians for the country's past practice of removing aboriginal children from their families and forcing them to attend state-funded schools aimed at assimilating them. Harper, speaking in Parliament, said the treatment of children at the schools is a sad chapter in Canadian history. "We are sorry," he said. The apology comes just months after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar gesture to the so-called Stolen Generations - thousands of the continent's Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970. In Canada, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s as part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. "The government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize," Harper said in an address televised live across Canada. "We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, and that it created a void in many lives and communities and we apologize." Many suffered physical and sexual abuse. "These institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled and we apologize for failing to protect you," Harper said. Hundreds of former students were invited to Ottawa to witness what native leaders call a pivotal moment for Canada's more than 1 million aboriginals, who today remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group. There are more than 80,000 surviving students of the schools. Eleven aboriginal leaders watched the apology from the floor of the House of Commons and hundreds of aboriginals watched from the public gallery and from the front lawn of Parliament. "Finally, we heard Canada say it is sorry," Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said from the floor of the House of Commons. Fontaine wore a traditional native headdress and was allowed to speak from the floor after opposition parties demanded it. "Never again will this House consider us an Indian problem for just being who we are," Fontaine said. "We heard the government of Canada take full responsibility." Fontaine said the apology will go a long way toward repairing the relationship between aboriginals and the rest of Canada. In addition to the apology, a truth and reconciliation commission will examine government policy and take testimony from survivors. Officials have not yet set a date for when the commission will take testimony. The truth commission was created as part of a US$4.9 billion class action settlement in 2006 - the largest in Canadian history - between the government and churches and the surviving students. In 1998, Canada's former Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart expressed "profound regret" for the establishment of residential schools, but aboriginals did not consider the statement sufficient.