By saying "we are sorry," Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the Canadian government's role in a century of isolating native children from their homes, families and cultures.

"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter of our history," he said Wednesday in the House of Commons. "Some sought, as was infamously said, to kill the Indian in the child. This policy was wrong, caused great harm and has no place in our country."

Residential school survivors from across Canada -- many wearing traditional clothing -- filled the House of Commons. Parliament postponed other business for the day, to hear the Government of Canada's official apology.

More than 1,000 watched from outside, where big screen televisions were mounted outside the Commons and on the Parliament lawn. And more than 30 events were organized in communities across the country.

Harper began his long-awaited speech after leading a procession of native leaders including Phil Fontaine, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, into the House of Commons.

Harper took responsibility on behalf of the federal government for cultural loss and patterns of abuse that resulted from the schools' policy.

"The Government of Canada now recognizes it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes... to separate children from rich and vibrant traditions," he said. "We apologize for having done this.

"We undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their children."

The prime minister's 15-minute address also included a surprising nod to NDP Leader Jack Layton for constantly pushing the issue as a government priority.

About 150,000 native children went through the programs, which were an extension of religious missionary work designed to assimilate them into Christian society. An estimated 80,000 are still alive.

The apology comes as part of a $4 billion compensation and healing package for residential school abuse survivors.

Aboriginal leaders speak in House

In a last-minute twist, the government allowed native leaders to reply to the apology in the House of Commons, rather than be shuffled off to a reception room after the apology.

Fontaine led the leaders' delegation by inviting all Canadians to continue to struggle for racial equality.

"Brave survivors, through telling their stories, have stripped white supremacy of its legitimacy," he said. "Never again will this house consider us 'the Indian problem' just for being who we are.

"What happened today signifies a new dawn on the relationship between us and the rest of Canada... We are all part of one garment of destiny. The ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. We still have to struggle, but now we are in this together."

Inuit leader Mary Simon used her speech to look the prime minister in the eyes and thank him for his "courage."

"I have to face you to say this because it comes from the bottom of my heart," she said. "The generosity in the words chosen to convey this apology will help us end this dark period."

Party leaders say sorry

The prime minister's opening speech was followed by Opposition Leader Stephane Dion, who recounted stories told to him by numerous survivors and acknowledged past Liberal governments' role in residential school policy.

"As leader of the party that formed the government for more than 70 years of the 20th century, I acknowledge our role. I am deeply sorry," he said. "We apologize to those who died waiting for these words to be spoken."

Dion lauded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel launched earlier this month to hear testimony from survivors about the impact of the policy on their lives.

Layton fought back tears as he recalled the suffering of students, and said it's time to address the problems plaguing native people and communities across the country.

Despite Harper's advice earlier this week to avoid playing politics with such a serious issue, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe used much of his time at the microphone to blast the Conservative government for failing to back up its apology with concrete action.

"This apology is necessary but insufficient," he said, noting Canada's position as one of only four countries that failed to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. "Apologies, once given, are only meaningful for the action that follows."

Duceppe pressed the government to better fund native communities or risk repeating the actions of the past by further damaging aboriginal culture. He ended his speech to thunderous applause in the House, from his own party and the survivors who packed the observation gallery.

After the apology, the leaders who had been sitting in a circle in front of the prime minister ushered several aging survivors onto the House floor, where they were met with a standing ovation.

Abuse survivor Charlie Thompson watched the apology from the House gallery and said he felt relieved to hear the prime minister acknowledge the horrible legacy.

"(My brothers and I) were all sexually abused by the people who were supposed to look after us," he told CTV's Mike Duffy Live on Wednesday. "All across the country people didn't believe us that we were being abused.

"Today I feel relief. I feel good. For me, this is a historical day."