OTTAWA – The question of whether the country’s Metis 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 People.
Or it could overturn a historic victory.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals from both sides in a case started 15 years ago by Metis 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 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 and thus have been denied certain benefits.
Both the Metis 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 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.
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples – which represents both non-status Indians and Metis – appealed that ruling.
So did the federal government. It claims both lower courts were wrong to extend Indian status to the Metis – while also arguing the appeals court got it right when it ruled non-status Indians as a whole should not constitutionally be considered Indians.
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 Metis peoples and status Indians.”
The Supreme Court also gave the Metis National Council, 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 Metis people.