The Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” within the meaning of Canada’s 1867 Constitution, the Supreme Court of Canada has said in a unanimous decision that sets the stage for potentially costly negotiations around land claims and enhanced social benefits for nearly 700,000 people.

The ruling states unequivocally that the term “Indians,” as it was written into law at the time of Confederation, includes all aboriginal people, not just those who hold status as members of a First Nation.

It naturally follows, Justice Rosalie Abella said in writing for the court, that the federal government has a fiduciary relationship with the Métis and non-status Indians, just as it does with status Indians, and that the Métis and non-status Indians have the right to be consulted and to negotiate on matters affecting them.

Thursday’s ruling is not a direct order to Ottawa to provide certain programs and benefits to the Métis and non-status Indians. But it may change the framework in which Ottawa deals with the 450,000 members of the Métis community and Canada’s roughly 220,000 non-status Indians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the decision “a landmark ruling that will have consequences and impacts right across the country.” He said his government “will be engaging, not just on our own but with indigenous leadership to figure out what the path is forward.”

The ruling, which ends a case that has been before the courts since 1999, was greeted with euphoria by leaders of Canada’s Métis community and those representing indigenous people who live off-reserve.

“It is a very, very important decision in terms of the future and the lives of our people, our families, and we will now expect the federal government to call a meeting, to sit down with us, to start a process of dialogue,” said Dwight Dorey, chief of the Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of Canada.

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, had trouble finding the right word to describe his emotions. “Ecstatic, excited, happy, pleased,” he said.

Within the next year, Mr. Chartrand said, he hopes to begin negotiations around whether the Métis should be exempt from paying some forms of income tax, and whether they should receive extended health care and money for postsecondary education offered to First Nations people who live on reserves.

Sometimes called “the road-allowance people” because, for the most part, they lacked a land base and often set up makeshift communities, the Métis have been fighting for decades for recognition as a distinct aboriginal community with a claim to federal support and a seat at the table in land-claims talks.

“Both federal and provincial governments have, alternately, denied having legislative authority over non-status Indians and Métis,” Justice Abella wrote. “This results in these indigenous communities being in a jurisdictional wasteland with significant and obvious disadvantaging consequences.”

The federal government had argued that the Métis were not meant to be included in the 1867 definition of Indians and that there is no such thing as non-status Indians. It also said the entire case was irrelevant and dangerous.

But Justice Abella concluded that “in fact, ‘Indians’ has long been used as a general term referring to all indigenous peoples including mix-ancestry communities like the Métis.” And accepting that the Métis and non-status Indians belong under the umbrella of the definition, she said, will have the “undeniably salutary benefit of ending a jurisdictional tug of war.”

Jason Madden, the lawyer for the Métis National Council, said specific and comprehensive land claims will be an even larger issue than health and educational benefits. “Reconciliation for the Métis has been stalled since the eighties” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, the table is set for discussion.”

Constitutional law specialist Joseph Magnet, who brought the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Métis and non-status Indians, said the ruling means Canada must negotiate with those groups. “This decision today enables a productive relationship that has been blocked by this fighting between federal and provincial governments, basically, about who is going to pay,” Mr. Magnet said. “Canada has the primary responsibility here. They need to engage with us.”

In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Métis are a distinct aboriginal group with a right to hunt. Ten years later, the court said they had outstanding claims that were still at issue.

The current case was about whether federal responsibility for “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians” includes the Métis. It was launched by Métis leader Harry Daniels in 1999. He has since died, and his son, Gabriel, signed on to the case.

Gabriel Daniels said his father would be proud and happy with the ruling. “But, as happy as he would be,” Mr. Daniels said, “I think he would be thinking about what happens tomorrow and thinking about the future and what’s the next steps and what are we going to do now.”

OTTAWA and TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 14, 2016 9:54AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Apr. 14, 2016 9:58PM EDT