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A Métis flag. The federal government took a close look at the group that represents Métis people across Canada after questions arose over its expenses, newly released documents show.DAVID BLOOM/The Canadian Press

The Federal Court of Appeal has upheld part of a ruling that said Ottawa is constitutionally responsible for the Métis as a distinct aboriginal group, but dropped the same declaration as it applied to non-status Indians.

The appeal court ruling released Thursday says Canada's 450,000 Métis fall under federal jurisdiction and Ottawa will have to negotiate with them in the same way it does with First Nations and the Inuit.

It is the latest decision in a case that originated 15 years ago and will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court. If it is not ultimately overturned, it could require billions of dollars in new federal spending.

Federal and provincial governments have argued back and forth for years about who is responsible for providing programs, services and benefits to the Métis – a Western-based nation descended from the offspring of European traders and First Nations women. The ruling makes it clear the Métis are a federal responsibility.

David Chartrand, the president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, said the decision will fundamentally change the way the federal government treats his people. "We are a rights-bearing people and clearly there is a constitutional and legal obligation that applies to us," Mr. Chartrand said.

The appeal court ruling upholds part of the decision of Justice Michael Phelan, who determined last year that the Métis and non-status Indians are included with Indians under the 1867 Constitution Act. That would have effectively doubled the size of Canada's aboriginal population, adding a million more people.

But the appeal court did not see a reason to declare, as Justice Phelan did, that non-status Indians – people who identify as Indian but are not officially recognized or registered as such – are also covered under the Constitution act.

"Unlike the Mêtis, who are a distinct aboriginal people, it is common ground that non-status Indians are, broadly speaking, Indians without status under the Indian Act," said the appeal court in its ruling. It also said it is up to Parliament to decide who does and does not have status.

Joe Magnet, a lawyer for the Congress of Aboriginal People which represents Métis and non-status Indians, said the ruling means the federal government can give status to all non-status Indians – though it is unclear that the government has any desire or intention to do that.

Still, representatives of the non-status Indians celebrated the decision, saying it opens the door to services and programs provided to status Indians.

"It's going to improve the living conditions of off-reserve aboriginal peoples," Betty Ann Lavallée, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, told reporters. "This will go a long way to helping communities help themselves if these services are provided."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said that, given complex legal issues raised by the previous Federal Court decision, it was prudent for Canada to obtain a decision from a higher court. "We are pleased that the court granted part of our appeal," Mr. Valcourt said in an e-mail, "and we are reviewing all elements of today's decision to determine next steps."