Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday that the government's goal remains self-governance for First Nations, following a meeting with Canada's top chief about the squalid conditions in communities like northern Ontario's Attawapiskat.

Ottawa has been scrambling to deal with the ongoing housing crisis in Attawapiskat, which has left children and adults living in tents and unheated trailers at a time when cold winter is getting nearer every day.

Political furor over conditions in the remote, James Bay community erupted last month after band leadership declared a state of emergency.

Since then, the Conservative government has faced heavy criticism for not acting fast enough to resolve the crisis, and also for placing the reserve under third-party financial management.

However, Harper said that there is no quick fix for ensuring Aboriginal communities get on their feet, and that the process will take time.

"I think that the long-term goal of everybody is to have strong, accountable systems of self-government for Aboriginal communities. I think we all realize that we're not going to get there in one giant leap forward," Harper said in Burlington, Ont.

Harper said that his Friday meeting with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo touched on several issues, but the prime minister said that a "step-by-step" process is important to a long-term plan for healthy First Nations communities.

Earlier, the New Democrat MP who represents the region said that an apparent media "fascination" with the way money has been spent in Attawapiskat is obscuring the real challenges to the community.

Charlie Angus, the MP for the Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, said there has been extensive discussion on $90 million that Ottawa has allocated to Attawapiskat in recent years, but no dialogue on what the money is paying for.

"The fact is, if you are paid in Attawapiskat, for example, the per-capita spending is about one-half of what it is on a non-native Canadian," Angus told CTV News earlier in the day.

"But meanwhile, you have to do all your infrastructure, all your education, all your health services. Things start to fall apart pretty quick and that's what's happened in Attawapiskat, it's happened in Pikangikum, it's happened in Kashechewan, it's happened in Fort Albany, this is happening across northern Canada."

Angus is also frustrated by the efforts to "go through the books of this community, to find out what they did wrong," and also the blaming of Chief Theresa Spence for having a common-law relationship with the person who is in charge of co-managing how government finances are spent in Attawapiskat.

"This is a community that has been dragged through the dirt," Angus said.

Angus said Attawapiskat is one of a number of northern communities that have been ignored by Ottawa, while residents have grappled with horrendous living conditions and grinding poverty.

"You look across Northern Canada and these communities are collapsing, Attawapiskat is the tip of the iceberg," Angus said.

John Saunders, the Ontario director of disaster management for the Canadian Red Cross, said Friday that the general living conditions in Attawapiskat have been a shock to see up close.

"We're not necessarily used to seeing people living in shacks and sheds. And especially the numbers of people, where we're seeing five or six people living in an 8'x 10' space as their entire living area," Saunders said by telephone from Attawapiskat.

"It's somewhat shocking to many."

Saunders said the Red Cross has brought in sleeping bags and space heaters to help keep people warm for the time being. Plans are in place to bring in generators and additional heaters, he said.

The government has put Attawapiskat under third-party management as it looks for details on where $90 million in federal funds was spent when it was allocated to the reserve over the past five years.