NDN CAR personalized licence plate OK, court says, but Star Trek fan's ASIMIL8 plate is out

A Cree man is celebrating after winning a case against Manitoba's public insurer to keep his personalized licence plate — which reads NDN CAR — the Justice Centre for Constituional Freedoms announced in a release Thursday.

Bruce Spence says he feels 'vindicated' after court rules he can keep his NDN CAR plate

Bruce Spence shows off his personalized plate that he can now legally display, which he says was inspired by a song by Keith Secola. (Submitted by Bruce Spence)

An Indigenous man from Manitoba can keep his personalized licence plate — which reads NDN CAR — after settling out of court with Manitoba's public insurer, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms announced in a media release Thursday.

But another Manitoban won't get to keep his Star Trek-themed plate.

Bruce Spence, a Nehiyaw (Cree) man living in Winnipeg, filed a challenge with Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba Public Insurance's decision to revoke his NDN CAR licence plate, which the Crown corporation said earlier this year "may be considered offensive."

"I'm feeling vindicated right now," Spence told CBC News Thursday. 

James Kitchen, a lawyer for the Justice Centre — which advocates for freedom of speech and represented Spence in his fight with MPI — said the insurer has returned the licence plates and will allow Spence to keep them for as long as he wants. The settlement doesn't involve any money.

"It's all about the principle of the matter. It's about free speech and it's about people being able to express things that mean a lot to them," he said.

Spence got the personalized plate about seven years ago, according to the Justice Centre. The slogan is a reference to a 1992 folk-rock song NDN Kars by Keith Secola, an Anishinabe musician.

In May 2018, MPI notified Spence that it had received a complaint about the plate, saying it was offensive and "ethnic slang."

In February of this year, Spence got a letter from MPI telling him his plate was being recalled and that he could choose another slogan of his choice at no cost.

MPI stated in the letter that it was in the process of reviewing all personalized plates and that Spence's was identified in that review among "phrases or innuendos that may be considered offensive."

"I can see where certain plates would be offensive, but I don't understand how this could be offensive to anybody," he said in April.

"It is me expressing who I am."

Manitoba Public Insurance spokesperson Brian Smiley told CBC News the decision to return the plates was based on Spence's appeal. MPI also reached out to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which confirmed "NDN" isn't an offensive term.

"Taking all that into consideration and into account, we wanted to do what was right, so we returned the plate to Mr. Spence," he said.

ASIMIL8 case rejected

The Justice Centre has represented a number of people fighting to keep personalized licence plates.

It also announced Thursday that a Manitoba man whose Star Trek-themed "ASIMIL8" plate was also deemed offensive has lost his case.

Nicholas Troller has previously said the plate was a reference to the Borg, aliens in the science-fiction series who assimilate other beings into a hive-like collective.

In 2017, MPI revoked Troller's licence plate, saying it was deemed offensive to Indigenous people because of the history of government assimilation policies.

Nicholas Troller's 'ASIMIL8' plate was recalled by Manitoba Public Insurance. (CBC)

In a decision delivered Oct. 22, a Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled that MPI's decision to revoke Troller's plate was a justifiable limit on his right to free expression, the Justice Centre said.

MPI declined to comment on the ASIMIL8 case, deferring to the judge's decision and comments in the case.

The Justice Centre is also representing Lorne Grabher, a Nova Scotia man whose GRABHER licence plate was revoked in 2016 by that province's Registrar of Motor Vehicles. 

It expects the judge to hand down a decision in that case soon.

A court has yet to rule on Lorne Grabher's fight to keep his personalized licence plate. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Kitchen said he thinks cases involving personalized licence plates will become more and more common.

"It's going to continue until governments decide where to draw the line, and right now they've drawn the line pretty far deep into the territory of censorship," he said.

With files from Holly Caruk and Kelly Malone