A historic agreement has been struck between the leaders of First Nations and universities in Atlantic Canada to enhance educational opportunities for aboriginal people.

The Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs and the 12-member Association of Atlantic Universities signed a memorandum of understanding to improve access to education in a deal thought to be the first of its kind in Canada.  

'You don't have to go halfway around the world to find people to come work in Atlantic Canada — we're just down the street.' —John Paul

The idea is to encourage aboriginal people to choose a post-secondary education, thereby boosting economic chances and creating more community leaders.

Aboriginal leaders said helping young people attend and graduate from university is very important.

John Paul, the executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress, said it would also help the region fill a skills gap in the job market.  

"You don't have to go halfway around the world to find people to come work in Atlantic Canada — we're just down the street," he said. "We're like your next-door neighbours. We're not moving anywhere to go anywhere to get employment and we see the direct benefits, the direct contributions. What we do to help our communities helps all the communities in Atlantic Canada."

Paul said when he was growing up, a university education was an unattainable dream. He  hopes it will become the norm. 

"So we will have people at the PhD level, at the Master's degree level and those people, I feel, with that great skill set and with the experience and with the relationships built with the colleges and the university, I think will contribute to fundamentally changing our communities for the future," he said.

Universities will learn, too

Robert Campbell, the president of Mount Allison University, said it is also a chance for the universities to learn.  

"There's a lot of knowledge and understanding in the aboriginal community for a lot of our pressing problems, whether on a community level, the social level, the environmental level, in terms of the health and spirituality of our area," he said.

"There are all sorts of possibilities here. Universities want to tap into this and share it not only with aboriginal students, but with the wider community as well."

The groups said the MOU is not just talk about increased cooperation, but a signed pact that will make leaders accountable to follow through.