Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is committed to working with First Nations to better their lives.

Harper was speaking this morning at the much-anticipated Crown-First Nations gathering in Ottawa.

He said his government doesn’t intend to radically alter or do away with the Indian Act, saying the legislation “has deep roots (and) blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole”.

Instead, Harper said the approach will be to replace elements of the Act with more modern legislation and procedures, in partnership with provinces and First Nations.

Harper said some bands have already started to do this on their own, and he credited Saskatchewan’s Whitecap Dakota First Nation with helping lead the way.

He concluded by saying a lack of trust on both sides has set things back in the past, but he added a new generation of people are seeking a common vision and everyone must be a willing participant.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo says the leaders must not fail this time around.

Taking the floor after Harper had spoken, Atleo said he knows many First Nations leaders are skeptical about the significance of today’s gathering.

Atleo also said closing the employment and education gaps for First Nations would contribute $400 billion to the national economy.

A former national chief said he doesn’t want to hear talk about the government making small incremental changes to First Nations affairs.

Ovide Mercredi said the Crown should simply acknowledge its obligations under treaty before anything.

Mercredi added the government seems to be looking to the Indian Act for guidance when it comes to First Nations affairs, at the expense of the treaties.

Meanwhile, Union of BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Philip says the honour of the Crown and the very integrity of Canada as a nation is at stake in what happens next.

Otherwise, he says “an Aboriginal uprising is inevitable”.

At the end of the meeting, Atleo said the event was an important day in advancing the call to renew the relationship between First Nations and Canada.

He said First Nations are prepared to work with Ottawa on the basis of the new relationship to push beyond the Indian Act.

The federal government and First Nations agreed to set up task forces and working groups on issues such as how the government funds bands and economic development.

They have also pledged to report back in one year on the progress they have made overall.

Meantime, the interim chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says he is optimistic today’s meeting has helped relations between the two sides.

However, Morley Watson says only time will tell how serious the government is in moving forward on First Nations issues:

“Do we feel a little bit better today?  Yes, we do. But we’re going to have to wait in the coming days to see if the gathering is going to bear fruit for our First Nations people.”

Watson adds First Nations leaders haven’t addressed a Prime Minister since the 1980’s, and they’re hoping they can continue meeting with him on an annual basis.