(CNN) -- The Australian government apologized Wednesday for years of "mistreatment" that inflicted "profound grief, suffering and loss" on the country's Aboriginal people.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd makes the apology on Wednesday from inside Parliament.
New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read the apology Wednesday to Aborigines and the "Stolen Generations" of children who were taken from their families.
"To the mothers and fathers, to the brothers and sisters we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation on a proud people and a proud culture we say sorry."
For 60 years, until 1970, the Australian government took mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families and put them in dormitories or industrial schools, claiming it was protecting them.
As a result of the policy, "stolen" children lost contact with their families and heritage, received poor education, lived in harsh conditions, and often endured abuse. Watch one of these "stolen" children discuss this legacy »
"There is nothing I can say today that will take away the pain... Words are not that powerful," Rudd said in the Australian Parliament.
He said that the apology was the start of a new approach towards Aborigines which included helping them find their lost families, closing pay gaps and a 17-year difference in life expectancy between Aborigines and white Australians. Watch Rudd make the apology »
He said new policies would be introduced to provide better healthcare and education to Aborigines.
"The mood of the nation is for reconciliation now," Rudd said. Watch why this apology is considered significant »
The policy was largely a secret until a decade ago, when a government inquiry and high-profile movie exposed it. That sparked a mass movement, supported by many white Australians, demanding an apology.
Former Prime Minister John Howard refused to offer an apology, saying the current generation should not be held accountable for past misdeeds. He instead issued a statement of regret.
Rudd, who defeated Howard last November, made an apology part of his election campaign. Howard's successor as leader of the Liberal Party, Brendan Nelson, supported the apology Wednesday.
"The apology ... is ... very much just the first step," said a spokeswoman for Jenny Macklin, the minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
"We have serious inequalities between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians. The apology is symbolic, but there's a lot of hard work to be done to reverse those inequalities."
Mary Farrell-Hooker counts herself among the Stolen Generations and is now a spokeswoman for an Aboriginal activist group.
She is of mixed race and was one of 12 children of alcoholic parents. Her father was in jail for raping her sister when her mother was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
"The police came to the school and told me they were taking me to the hospital to see my mom," Farrell-Hooker told CNN. "We never went to the hospital."
Instead, Mary, then 12, was taken to a series of foster centers. At one of them, she said, she was repeatedly raped by a white "house father."
"He would actually come into the room and force himself onto me, rape me, molest me," she said. "If I didn't do what he wanted, he would threaten to do the same to my sister and (threaten to) split us up."
Her parents came to find her, she said, but were repeatedly turned away. She tried to run away but said the police always returned her to her tormentor.
Aboriginal people have been waiting decades for an apology, and the Australian public appear to welcome the government's move, according to CNN's Jacqueline Head in Sydney.
Head said many Australians believe saying sorry is long overdue, but some doubts remain over what it will achieve in the long term -- whether it will help open doors for Aboriginal people seeking rights and compensation or whether it will fail to secure indigenous people a better future.
Some white Australians don't believe the apology will bring about reconciliation.
"I think Australians will be sorry for many generations for offering this apology now," said Piers Akerman, a conservative commentator.
He said Aboriginal compensation claims will now gain new vigor.
To symbolize what the government hopes will be a fresh approach to the future, a group of indigenous Australians performed a traditional welcome ceremony Tuesday of dancing and singing to mark the start of parliament's new session. As the traditional owners of the land which parliament sits on, the performers "welcomed" the lawmakers onto it.
"For thousands of years, our peoples have observed this protocol," said Matilda House, an Aboriginal elder at the ceremony. "It is a good and honest and decent and very human act to reach out to make sure everyone has a place and is welcome." E-mail to a friend
CNN's Jacqueline Head and Hugh Riminton contributed to this report