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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that more than 600,000 aboriginal people previously denied special legal status by the federal government should receive it, granting potential access to new rights and benefits.
The court declared that Metis people - those of mixed aboriginal and European descent - and aboriginals not registered with the government are "Indians" under the Constitution Act of 1867, placing them in federal jurisdiction with respect to rights and benefits.
The ruling allows Metis and unregistered aboriginals, or "non-status Indians," to negotiate with the federal government for some of the same rights and benefits granted aboriginal people living on reserves. These include hunting and fishing privileges, tax breaks and assistance for medication, housing and education.
The case began in 1999, with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and one Metis and two non-status Indians as plaintiffs.
A lower court had initially ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, but the then-Conservative government raised the case to the Federal Court of Appeal, which upheld the previous ruling on Metis, but not unregistered aboriginals.
Joe Magnet, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said outside court that the lack of "Indian" status meant a lack of access to benefits and services some aboriginals badly needed.
"We will look forward to engaging the government as to how these discriminatory practices should be removed," he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after the ruling the government respects the court's decision and looks forward to talks.
"Canadians who don't have the same chances as other Canadians do - that is something that has been going on for far too long," he told reporters at an event in southern Ontario.
Canada's aboriginals have higher poverty levels and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction and incarceration.
Trudeau's Liberal government announced additional funding in last month's federal budget for First Nations communities in a bid for renewed, positive relations.
According to federal data, the Canadian government spent C$8.1 billion ($6.32 billion) from 2014 to 2015 on aboriginal funding. There are roughly 700,000 status Indians and more than 400,000 Metis and 200,000 non-status Indians.
One of the plaintiffs, Metis activist Harry Daniels, died before the case was heard. His son, Gabriel Daniels, who later joined the lawsuit, said his father "would probably be doing a jig right now."
($1 = 1.2812 Canadian dollars)
Reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto; Editing by James Dalgleish