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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in Ottawa on Tuesday, January 24, 2012.The Canadian Press

The pragmatic, incremental approach to aboriginal problems that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, seem to have agreed to, holds promise. Aboriginal peoples have too many desperate needs (in education, housing, economic development and health) to lose time on big, contentious fixes or distractions.

The Crown-First Nations Gathering on Tuesday was about laying the groundwork for a "partnership." But it also produced a commitment by the Canadian government that it will co-operate to remove barriers to first nations governance, and to improve accountability on both sides. Governor-General David Johnston spoke about "returning to first principles," and these should be deemed among them.

National Chief Atleo answered skeptics with an eloquent and powerful plea to work together as partners with the federal government. He spoke of "the sacred alliance between our ancestors, the leaders of the First Nations and the British Crown." He praised Mr. Harper for signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and for his historic apology for the damage inflicted by the residential schools. He had sat with his grandmother, holding her hand during that apology, and quoted her as saying, "Grandson, they are beginning to see us."

Mr. Harper said he would "replace elements" of the 1876 Indian Act with "more modern legislation and procedures." He stressed the practical gains that come through co-operation, and through providing aboriginal communities with the tools they need to advance. Aboriginal communities should feel confident they can work with this government. The First Nations Land Management Act, under which scores of first nations manage their own lands, is one example.

What new tools emerged from the summit? There was an agreement to create an economic task force to "unlock the economic potential" of reserves, and to implement an education panel's future recommendations as quickly as possible.

The shadow of Attawapiskat, a desperately crowded, remote reserve in northern Ontario, hung over the summit. Symbolism is good, but perhaps not so good as a house that fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts and children can live in together. If, out of the summit, aboriginal leaders and government work together to identify and prevent the next Attawapiskat, the symbolism will have been put to good use.