Canberra, Australia — Aborigines organized breakfast barbecues in the Outback, schools held assemblies and giant TV screens went up in state capitals as Australians watched a live broadcast of their government today apologizing for policies that degraded its indigenous people.
In a historic parliamentary vote that supporters said would open a new chapter in race relations, lawmakers unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's motion on behalf of all Australians.
"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," Rudd said in Parliament, reading from the motion.
The apology is directed at tens of thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under now-abandoned assimilation policies.
"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry," the motion said. "And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."
Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group, and Rudd has made improving their lives one of his government's top priorities.
"This is a historic day," said Tom Calma, who gave the Stolen Generations formal response. "Today our leaders across the political spectrum have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our nation's first people."
In Parliament's public galleries and at gatherings large and small around the country, victims of the assimilation policies and their supporters listened intently as Rudd spoke. Many wept quietly.
Traditional cleansing ceremonies were held in Sydney's predominantly Aboriginal suburb of Redfern before a crowd watched events on a big screen. Parents clutched children on their knees. Many waved Australian and Aboriginal flags.
"Sorry heals the heart and it goes deep," said Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, an Aborigine among the crowd. "This really means a big thing to us - a weight that can be lifted so that we can start our healing."
The apology ended years of divisive debate and a decade of refusals by the previous conservative government that lost November's elections.
In the Outback town of Broome on the far northwest coast, dozens gathered before dawn to watch the speeches in Canberra on television via a scratchy feed.
"I'm glad it's come this far," local Aborigine Justin Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "But it's not going to stop here, there is still going to be that hurt."
Rudd received a standing ovation from lawmakers and from scores of Aborigines and other dignitaries who were invited to Parliament to witness the event.