A majority of Supreme Court justices declared that the way the federal government handed out parcels of land to children of the Manitoba Metis in the 1870s failed to live up to its constitutional obligations.
As a result, Ottawa now faces the prospect of lengthy negotiations over vast tracts of land in the province — including all of present-day Winnipeg.
The 6-2 decision, the culmination of a legal dispute dating back three decades, stems from a historic deal that ultimately made Manitoba Canada's fifth province.
As part of the 1870 deal that created the province, the federal government of the day promised 5,565 square kilometres of land would be set aside for the 7,000 children of the Metis.
But Ottawa botched the land grant. Soon new settlers began arriving in waves and speculators snapped up much of the land for a fraction of its value.
The Manitoba Metis Federation argued it amounted to a failure by the federal government to look after the interests of the Metis children and a betrayal of the land grant's intent.
"What is at issue is a constitutional grievance going back almost a century and a half," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Andromache Karakatsanis said in writing for the majority of the court.
"So long as the issue remains outstanding, the goal of reconciliation and constitutional harmony ... remains unachieved. The ongoing rift in the national fabric ... remains unremedied.
"The unfinished business of reconciliation of the Metis people with Canadian sovereignty is a matter of national and constitutional import."
The Metis say they have no intention of demanding their land back, but they do want compensation for past wrongs.
"I call on the prime minister of Canada to come to the table with his cabinet, or his minister, to sit down with the Metis nation," David Chartrand of the Manitoba Metis Federation told a news conference Friday.
"And (I) hope our federal government will be open and understanding and willing to do the right thing for the Metis nation and all Canadians."
Chartrand wouldn't say how much money the Metis might seek in compensation, or what other demands they might make.
Whether or not any negotiations take place is another matter. The Harper government pointed out the Supreme Court ruling doesn't spell out any specific remedy for the Metis.
The decision calls on governments to continue working on "improving the lives of and policy related to Metis populations across Canada," said Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to new Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
"It is what it is. It's a signal that the legislature, you know, now can move forward ... on developing the kind of policy platform that ensures that Metis populations across Canada, which we realize and recognize of course that Manitoba has a substantial population of Metis folks, and we'll move forward in that manner."
Metis groups say the next step has to be talks.
"They've won a great victory, and I think they've shown that there is every reason for negotiations now to remedy a historic wrong," said former judge Thomas Berger, who represented the Manitoba Metis Federation.
"That's what Canada is all about. We don't leave a trail of historical wreckage behind us as we move from one decade to another."
Berger characterized the decision as a clear signal that the time has come to sit down and negotiate a new deal.
"The Supreme Court has intervened and said as long as this issue has not been dealt with, there cannot be reconciliation between Canada and the Manitoba Metis. That, it seems to me, is a call for negotiations."
Metis groups from Ontario and Alberta, as well as the federal New Democrats, also called for talks.
The ruling marks the second time in recent months that the courts have sided with the Metis in high-profile cases. A Federal Court ruling brought Metis and non-status Indians into the ranks of people considered "Indians" under the Constitution.
The Conservative government is now appealing that decision, which — if left to stand — would vastly expand Ottawa's responsibilities for aboriginal peoples.Suggest a correction