OTTAWA -- The Federal Court of Appeal has largely upheld a landmark ruling that could vastly expand the ranks of people considered Indians under the Constitution.

A Federal Court ruling last year brought Metis and non-status Indians into the ranks of people considered "Indians" under the Constitution.

On Thursday, the appeals court upheld part of that decision -- ruling that Metis are included as Indians under the Constitution, but not non-status Indians.

"I would allow the appeal in part by deleting reference in the declaration to non-status Indians," Justice Eleanor Dawson.

The case dragged on for years before last year's ruling.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and 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.

If the decision is left to stand, it would vastly expand Ottawa's responsibilities for hundreds of thousands of aboriginal people in Canada who are not affiliated with specific reserves and have essentially no access to First Nations programs, services and rights.

If the federal government appeals again, the case would go the Supreme Court.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office wouldn't say if that is the government's next move.

"We are pleased that the court granted part of our appeal, and we are reviewing all elements of today's decision to determine next steps," spokeswoman Erica Meekes said in an email.

She also defended the government's decision to appeal the original Federal Court decision.

"Our priority is to create jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians, including Metis," Meekes said.

"Given that the previous Federal Court decision raised complex legal issues it was prudent for Canada to obtain a decision from a higher court."