Step Up To The Plate: Part 1

By Andrew Bailey

“Licence plates” “…Huh? What about them…?” When faced with these two words, most people would probably say that they are merely inanimate pieces of metal, serving simply as a way of identifying a car, its owner, its origins; nothing more, nothing less. Who cares, right?

As an avid and unashamed collector of plates, I would beg to differ. In North America, where registration plates are free from the constraints of EU law, each province (or state) comes up with their own unique design, reflecting what delights or qualities each jurisdiction has on offer for the visitor. Though the designs may often be considered “naff”, usually becoming more and more elaborate and wacky as time progresses, these plates become an instantly recognisable visualisation of the values invested in a province and it’s people: an omnipresent, mobile advert that creates links between the individual, the car (an unavoidable and essential component of life in a country as vast as Canada), movement and belonging. The rich businessman’s BMW will be branded with the same visual identity as that found on the poor immigrant’s clunker: the plate and its values becomes a unifying tool, an identity that binds together a diverse group of people, one that does not observe the often cruel world of social hierarchy.

I will take each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories and their respective current plates in turn, and offer my humble opinions/analysis.

Alberta has required motorists to carry licence plates on their vehicles since 1912. The current slogan of “Wild Rose Country” has been in use since 1973, with the current design (in use since 1984) depicting a Rosa Acicularis, one of the many flowers that bloom during the spring on the Albertan plains. This presents a community deeply rooted in its nature and natural environment, a valid point considering the importance of Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Athabasca Lake and the Rockies, to name just a few of Alberta’s natural wonders.

British Columbia, Alberta’s next-door neighbour, continues with the outdoorsy theme: a simple design of blue-on-white validly stating “Beautiful British Columbia” (nice use of alliteration) accompanied by a proudly sailing provincial flag has been in use since 1985. A special Olympic edition was released in time for the 2010 Vancouver winter games stating B.C. as being “the best place on earth”: let’s not get arrogant guys…

Manitoba: “friendly” since 1976! This optimistic slogan is accompanied by a landscape containing trees, rivers, the waters of Lake Winnipeg and wheat. More detail is added in the form of a bison, and a red maple leaf acting as the “i” of Manitoba. So, another province and its people rooted in the environment (I see a trend developing…) Things weren’t always this picturesque though: Things got political and controversial in 1981, with the win of the NDP in the province allowing them to change the plate’s colour scheme to red, white and black, which just so happened to be the colours of the NDP at the time. This decision was swiftly reversed 5 years later when they lost. Go figure.

New Brunswick’s plate, introduced earlier this year, features a little boat sailing across a bright blue sky, referencing the province’s maritime history. The design also takes the province’s sizeable francophone minority (33% of the 750,000 population) into account by featuring the slogan in both English and French (reflecting N.B.’s status as Canada’s only officially bilingual province). This admirable gesture, promoting good ol’ N.B. as a unified and harmonious place, is marred by the confusing wording of the slogan itself. “Be…in this place” invites the audience to fill in the blank, making New Brunswick seem dynamic and flexible, a place where you could freely be whatever you please. The slogan hardly rolls off the tongue, however: it certainly took me a few attempts to understand what exactly was being conveyed. All in all a nice idea, but poorly executed.

Newfoundland & Labrador is clearly on a cost-cutting drive: the plate used to feature a boat, the province’s flag, and the tagline of “A World of Difference”. However, since 2006, the lacklustre blue-on-white design leaves a lot to be desired. Interest comes in the form of a barely-visible picture of a Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia Purpurea, which just so happens to be the province’s official flower. If I were a “newfie”, I would be sorely disappointed by this feeble design.

What does Nova Scotia have? Boats! Big ones, too. N.S. has been “Canada’s Ocean Playground” since 1972, with the tall-masted schooner “The Bluenose” featuring prominently in the background since 1989. I like this design: the large font size, the boat, and the strong blue pallet all add up to make a purposeful plate that says “Hey, I’m from Nova Scotia: we are a nation of sea-farers and sea-lovers, and we’re here to stay”. Good work.

(The final seven plates and a conclusion will appear next week)

1 Comment

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One response to “Step Up To The Plate: Part 1

  1. I’m very much enjoying your insightful posts here, which prove that Canada’s culture and character can be discerned in so much more than Maple Syrup and Mounties. You have an eye for detail. Thank you

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