TORONTO -- A left hand stolen from a totem pole standing outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was returned safely overnight on Tuesday with a note of apology from the thieves.

The sacred totem pole was vandalized two weeks ago by two hooded individuals who broke off the hand and left. It was a brazen act caught on a surveillance camera that sparked a flood of public outrage.

The hand was returned inside a plastic bag and “carefully deposited” on the museum’s doorstep with a handwritten letter of apology, the museum said in a press release, adding that the artist and owner of the work were happy with the outcome.

The note explained that they were “not in a sober state of mind” at the time and ignorant of the meaning behind the artwork.

"After we realized what this stood for and represented for so many people, we immediately felt sick to our stomach," the apology note stated. "We would like to let all know that in NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM was this done in spite ... We were simply ignorant of what it symbolized, and have decided we 100% needed to return it."

The museum accepted the apology and has withdrawn its complaint.

The 22-metre tall totem pole, once a towering thousand-year-old tree in the forests of British Columbia, tells the story of its artist, Charles Joseph of the Kwakiutl Nation, and the thousands of Indigenous children who were torn from their families and sent to residential schools.

They were victims of a cultural genocide in Canada, and thousands died at the schools.

Joseph created the totem as a way to heal and connect with his roots through the ancient tree: There is a killer whale, the guardian of memory, a spirit bear for the children who never came home, and a nun and a priest who symbolize the crosses he bears. The outstretched hands, said Joseph, beckons and welcomes the children home.

The totem pole was erected outside the museum in 2017 as part of Montreal’s 375th anniversary and in the spirit of reconciliation, so that the place of Indigenous people in the city’s history would not be forgotten.

"The letter of sincere apology that we received from the transient delinquents shows us that art educates and sensitizes us to all of the most important issues, notably our reconciliation with Indigenous peoples," said the museum’s Director General and Chief Curator, Nathalie Bondil.