The question of whether the country's Métis and non-status Indians have a right to the same programs and services as First Nations and Inuit has fallen to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The eventual outcome of the case could vastly extend the federal government's responsibilities to hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal Peoples.
Or it could overturn a historic victory.
- Court of Appeal upholds landmark ruling on rights of Métis
- Federal Court grants rights to Métis, non-status Indians
On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals from both sides in a case started 15 years ago by Métis leader Harry Daniels. As usual, the court did not give reasons for its decision to hear the case.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, along with several Métis 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 and thus have been denied certain benefits.
Both the Métis and non-status Indians scored a major win last year when the Federal Court recognized them as "Indians" under the Constitution. The federal government appealed that ruling.
Earlier this year, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld part of the decision. It ruled that while Métis 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.
Both sides appealed
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — which represents both non-status Indians and Métis — appealed that ruling.
So did the federal government. It claims both lower courts were wrong to extend Indian status to the Métis — while also arguing the appeals court got it right when it ruled non-status Indians as a whole should not constitutionally be considered Indians.
"Given that the previous Federal Court decision raised complex legal issues, it was prudent for Canada to obtain a decision from a higher court," Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a statement Thursday.
"We remain committed to work in partnership with Métis peoples to create healthy, prosperous, self-sufficient communities across Canada."
'The decision of the Court of Appeal was flawed in our view, as it drew an unhelpful distinction between the federal government's responsibility for non-status Indians and its responsibilities toward Métis peoples and status Indians.' - National Chief Betty Ann Lavallee
The head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to hear the appeals.
"This is an important step in the long struggle begun by my predecessor as national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Harry Daniels," National Chief Betty Ann Lavallee said in a statement.
"The decision of the Court of Appeal was flawed in our view, as it drew an unhelpful distinction between the federal government's responsibility for non-status Indians and its responsibilities toward Métis peoples and status Indians."
The Supreme Court also gave the Métis National Council [MNC], which is a intervener to the case, more time to file its own response to both appeals.
The council wanted the federal government to drop its appeal and start working out an agreement with the Métis people.
Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand isn't surprised by today's Supreme Court decision.
"Now we've got to go into another court to battle it one more time. What we're anticipating, of course, [is] a positive outcome because we've been waiting over a century for this. We've been waiting a long time."