Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a group of First Nations leaders are set to meet early next year to discuss key issues facing aboriginal people, including living conditions in First Nations communities.

The Jan. 24 gathering was announced after a meeting in Ottawa Thursday between Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

"We can perhaps consider this moment and the idea of us gathering as a moment to reset the relationship between First Nations and the federal Crown," Atleo said.

The sit-down between Atleo and Harper had been previously scheduled and wasn't specifically about the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, a community of roughly 1,800 people in the James Bay area. Many residents of the remote Cree community live in subpar housing, and some residents are living in tents and sheds because of a housing shortage.

The housing crisis has sparked political wrangling between the local band and the federal government, which recently put Attwapiskat under third-party management. 

"We have communities in crisis that need action now, but we must stop lurching from crisis to crisis," Atleo said in a statement released after the Ottawa meeting. "This requires action and commitment to address systemic problems, and it requires that we work together."

Harper said the January meeting is a "historic" opportunity that he hopes proves useful.

In a statement, Harper said he looked forward to meeting with First Nations representatives to determine "how we can work together to further improve the quality of life and long-term economic prosperity of Canada's Aboriginal peoples."

The meeting will cover a range of issues, including social and economic opportunities and improved living conditions in First Nations communities, a government statement said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, who has faced strong criticism from the opposition over the government's handling of the Attawapiskat crisis, is also slated to attend the meeting.

Atleo said the meeting could be an opportunity to "begin the work of smashing the status quo and breaking the shackles that are holding us back."

"We began our history as partners. We can move forward as partners," he said.

First Nations leadership has been pushing for such a meeting since the summer of 2010. Last December, the prime minister agreed to the sit-down, which will now take place early in 2012.

 

With files from The Canadian Press