A group that advocates for freedom of speech is threatening to take Manitoba Public Insurance to court after the Crown corporation scrapped a Winnipeg man's Star Trek-themed vanity licence plate for being offensive.

"Of course you could think of much bigger violations of freedom of expression than a vanity licence plate, but it's important to hold governments to account," said John Carpay, a lawyer and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. 

Manitoba Public Insurance notified Winnipegger Nick Troller in April that his "ASIMIL8" vanity plate — a sci-fi reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg aliens, he said — would have to go after someone filed a complaint about it being offensive. The plate had been on Troller's family vehicle for about two years when he was forced to get rid of it.

John Carpay Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms

John Carpay is one of the founders of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, based in Alberta. (Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms)

In a letter to Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms dated July 7, MPI refused to reinstate Troller's licence plate.

"The word 'assimilate' has become closely associated with the harm occasioned by the Indian residential school system," the letter reads.

Carpay said Tuesday that MPI's approach was wrong-headed and he plans to file for a judicial review of the decision. 

"There's a lot of people who appreciate Star Trek, and there's this entity called the Borg, which assimilates other people and ideas and technologies into itself. It's fictional," said Carpay, who is a former Wildrose Party candidate in Alberta.

There isn't anything "inherently offensive" about the word, he said.

"Were the word itself a four-letter word, an obscenity, that would be reasonable for the government to disallow it, but the word assimilate, in and of itself, does not have any good or bad connotations, so no group has the right to take ownership of a word."

Calls to Troller for comment were not immediately returned. Carpay said Troller did not want to speak with media about the planned application for a judicial review. 

Assimilation of Indigenous people

When news of the ban first broke, some people commented online that the plate was insensitive in light of Canada's attempts to assimilate Indigenous people.

Nick with plate

Nick Troller dusts off his vanity licence plate a few days before returning it to Manitoba Public Insurance. (CBC)

In justifying its refusal to reinstate the plate, MPI invoked former prime minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology to Indigenous people on behalf of the government of Canada, which described residential schools as designed to "remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture."

"Today we recognize this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country," reads the July 7 letter to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

Among other restrictions, MPI states on its website that vanity licence plates cannot include profanity, sexual innuendo, or racial or political messages that may be offensive. It also says it has "the right to recall personalized licence plates that are later deemed to be inappropriate."

A spokesperson said MPI wouldn't comment further "with possible legal proceedings pending."

It's the second time this year that the Justice Centre has come out against the recall of a licence plate. It also became involved in the case of Lorne Grabher, who had his last name on his plate.

Carpay​ also supported private religious schools that enforce policies some have called anti-LGBT, including B.C.-based Christian university Trinity West, which made students sign a "community covenant" and pledge to only have sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex after marriage.

In December, Carpay and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed a petition against smudging in the classroom, saying it violated Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a provincial law in B.C. that prohibits religious teachings in public schools.

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With files from Jill Coubrough