​ Members of southern Labrador's NunatuKavut community are celebrating a Supreme Court of Canada decision that will make it easier to settle land claims, according to one of its leaders.

The court ruled Thursday that tens of thousands of Métis and non-status Indians across Canada are the responsibility of the federal government, ending a 17-year court battle.

"This is a huge victory for southern Inuit of Nunatukavut," said NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) President Todd Russell in a news release.

"Building upon the commitment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the path to a NunatuKavut land claim acceptance is clearer and more assured than it has ever been," he said.  

Russell expects the Supreme Court decision will have a significant impact on members of his community.

'This will have a tremendous impact on our overall well-being.' - Todd Russell

"This historic win ensures that we must have equitable access to programs and services like Non-Insured Health Benefits, housing and education, which have long been denied our people. This will have a tremendous impact on our overall well-being," he said.

Russell believes this court decision will fundamentally change the federal government's relationship with his community.

Build nation-to-nation relationship

"Now, we can truly continue to build a nation-to-nation relationship with the Government of Canada and gain the recognition that we deserve and have been fighting for generations," he said.

The ruling extends the federal government's responsibilities to approximately 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-status aboriginal people who are not affiliated with specific reserves, and have essentially no access to First Nations programs, services and rights.

SCOC Metis 20160414

Bruce Dumont, president of the BC Metis Nation, left, Audrey Poitras, president of the Alberta Metis Nation, front, and Gerald Morin, vice president of the Saskatchewan Metis Nation, right, celebrate after a decision at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The case was launched in 1999 by prominent Métis leader Harry Daniels — then president of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — along with Leah Gardner, a non-status Anishinaabe woman, and Terry Joudrey, a non-status Mi'kmaq man. Daniels died in 2004.

Canada's top court was asked to rule on whether the federal government has the same responsibility to Métis and non-status Indians as to status Indians and Inuit. 

Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the court, said the provincial and federal governments have both denied having legal authority over non-status Indians and Métis, leaving them in a "jurisdictional wasteland."

Dwight Ball's promise

Last November, then Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said his party was "doing everything possible" to ensure the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) land claim is brought to the negotiating table.

In October, Russell encouraged voters to ask candidates about their commitment to settling the NCC land claim. 

"I tell you, I feel that we're on the cusp of something that is real and true," Russell said to reporters following Ball's announcement. 

with files from Tim Fontaine