CANBERRA, Australia – Australia apologized Wednesday to its indigenous people for past suffering in a watershed Parliament vote broadcast on giant TV screens in cities, at school assemblies and at breakfast barbecues in Aborigine communities in the Outback.
Lawmakers unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's motion to on behalf of all Australians in an emotional vote that supporters said would open a new chapter in race relations.
"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 was directed especially at the 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, extending the apology to "the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities."
"And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry," the motion said.
In a speech urging lawmakers to support the motion that was telecast nationally, Rudd also offered an apology on behalf of the government. "As prime minister of Australia, I am sorry," he said. "On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. ... I offer you this apology without qualification."
Rudd received a standing ovation from lawmakers and from scores of Aborigines and other dignitaries who were invited to Parliament to witness the event. Many wiped away tears as Rudd spoke.
Across Australia, Aborigines and supporters organized breakfast barbecues in Outback communities, giant TV screens went up in state capitals, and schools held assemblies so students could watch the telecast of the government apology.
More than 1,000 people gathered at two giants screens outside Parliament House watched Rudd's speech in silence, many waving Australian and Aboriginal flags. Applause broke out occasionally, but mostly they listened intently.
"It's great to get behind what the government's trying to do; bring black and white Australians together," said William Murray, a non-indigenous 17-year-old student who traveled for four hours by bus from Sydney to witness the occasion.
Aboriginal classmate Cyril Johnson, 17, also welcomed the apology.
"It's really good everyone realizes now they did a bad job in the old days and the apology is really good," Johnson said.
"This is a historic day," said Tom Calma, who was selected by Stolen Generations organizations to give a formal response to the apology. "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."
The apology places Australia among a handful of nations that have offered official apologies to oppressed minorities — including Canada's 1998 apology to its native people, South Africa's 1992 expression of regret for apartheid and the U.S. Congress' 1988 law apologizing to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II.
Aborigines lived mostly as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before British colonial settlers landed at what is now Sydney in 1788.
Today, there are about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia's population of 21 million. They are the country's poorest group, with the highest rates of jailing, unemployment and illiteracy. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than that of other Australians.
The debate about an apology was spurred by a government inquiry into policies that from 1910 until the 1970s resulted in 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children being taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were dying out.
Most were deeply traumatized by the loss of their families and culture, the inquiry concluded, naming them the "Stolen Generations." Its 1997 report recommended a formal apology and reparations for the victims.
Rudd has ruled out compensation — a stance that helped secure support for the apology among the many Australians who believe they should not be held responsible for past policies, no matter how flawed.
He pledges instead to lift the living standards of all Aborigines, and on Tuesday outlined bold targets for cutting infant mortality, illiteracy and early death rates among indigenous people within a decade.