OTTAWA - The Federal Court of Appeal has largely upheld a landmark ruling that could extend Ottawa's responsibilities to hundreds of thousands of aboriginal people who are not affiliated with specific reserves and have essentially no access to First Nations programs, services and rights.
Off-reserve aboriginals say the appeals court decision is yet another victory in what has been a long legal saga with the federal government.
"Metis and non-status Indians have never been granted the same recognition and rights as those provided (to) status Indians living on reserve," said Betty Ann Lavallee, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
"They have been shut out for far too long on being recognized for who they are and where they fit within the Canadian society."
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and several Metis and non-status Indians took the federal government to court in 1999, alleging discrimination because they were not considered "Indians" under a section of the Constitution Act.
They argued they have been denied certain benefits, which included:
— access to the same health-care, education and other benefits made available to status Indians;
— being allowed to hunt, trap, fish and gather on public lands; and,
— the ability to negotiate and enter into treaties with the federal government.
The Metis and non-status Indians scored a major victory last year when the Federal Court recognized them as "Indians" under the Constitution.
The federal government appealed that ruling.
On Thursday, the appeals court upheld part of the decision. It ruled that while Metis should remain Indians under the Constitution, extending that recognition to non-status Indians should be done on a case-by-case basis since it is a separate issue.
"It follows that non-status Indians as a group do not lend themselves to the declaration of general application sought by the respondents," wrote Justice Eleanor Dawson.
"However the matter is considered, no purpose is served by addressing the question on the generic basis proposed: the declaration lacks utility and will not settle any issue between non-status Indians and the federal government."
Still, Metis groups celebrated the decision.
"We as Metis are a practical people who seek practical solutions to make the Canadian federation work for us. As residents and taxpayers of the provinces, we always accepted that the provinces have an important role to play with us," Metis National Council president Clement Chartier said in a statement.
"At the same time, we always believed that Ottawa has primary responsibility to deal with us and must show leadership. The decision today buttresses this belief. The federal government can no longer shrug its shoulders and assume that Metis matters will be dealt with by others, all the while knowing this is not being done."
If the federal government appeals again, the case would go the Supreme Court.
Should that ever happen, and if the Supreme Court sides with the Metis people, it could still take years before the ruling translates into any actual benefits for them. The government would have to reshape its policies and enter into negotiations with the Metis.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office would not say whether the government plans to appeal.
"We are pleased that the court granted part of our appeal, and we are reviewing all elements of today's decision to determine next steps," spokeswoman Erica Meekes said in an email.
She also defended the government's decision to appeal the original Federal Court decision.
"Our priority is to create jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians, including Metis," Meekes said.
"Given that the previous Federal Court decision raised complex legal issues it was prudent for Canada to obtain a decision from a higher court."
The federal Liberals called on the Conservatives to start talks with the Metis people.
"This important clarification of the responsibilities of the federal government to Metis peoples in Canada has been a long time coming," Carolyn Bennett, the party's aboriginal affairs critic, said in a statement.
"Liberals believe fundamental issues like this should be resolved around a negotiating table and not in a court room.
"It is time for the government to initiate good faith negotiations with these communities about how they will work collaboratively to implement the rights affirmed by the court today."
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