(CNN) -- Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for a defunct policy that attempted "to kill the Indian in the child" by taking native children from their families and placing them in schools to assimilate them.
"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history," Harper said in an apology on behalf of the government Wednesday. "Today, we recognize this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country."
Hundreds of former students were invited to Ottawa to witness the apology, which native leaders called a pivotal moment for Canada's more than 1 million aboriginals.
"For our parents, our grandparents, great-grandparents and all of the generations which have preceded us, this day testifies to nothing less than the achievement of the impossible," said Phil Fontaine, chief of Canada's Assembly of First Nations, which represents more than 630 communities of indigenous people.
Fontaine sat with other Indian leaders and a group that included the oldest and youngest known survivors of the residential schools.
The Canadian government and religious groups operated the schools throughout Canada from the 1870s until the 1970s. The government says 80,000 former students are still alive.
In his statement, Harper acknowledged that children were forcibly taken from their families and isolated from their culture and traditions.
In many cases, children suffered neglect and physical and sexual abuse while in the schools, which Harper acknowledged was intended "to kill the Indian in the child."
In 2006, Canada settled a class-action lawsuit over the schools.
People who attended the schools were offered $10,000 for the first year they attended and $3,000 for each additional year.
Former students who were physically or sexually abused in the schools were offered additional payments of $5,000 to $275,000.
Harper was followed by other Conservative Party leaders who offered their own apologies.
"Memory has not faded; it has persisted, festered and become a sorrowful monument," Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion said. "Today ... we lay the first stone in building a new monument, a monument dedicated to truth."
Fontaine said that the apology is a major step toward improving the government's relationship with Indian groups but that there are still many obstacles to achieving equality.
"The significance of this day is not just about what has been but, equally important, what is to come," he said. "Never again will this House consider us 'the Indian problem' just for being who we are.
In February, Australia's government offered a similar apology to the country's Aboriginal people.
Lawmakers unanimously approved the apology, which was publicly read by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
For 60 years, the Australian government took mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families and put them in dormitories or industrial schools under the premise of protecting them.
As a result of the policy, which ended in 1970, "stolen" children lost contact with their families, lived in harsh conditions and often endured abuse.