Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Too much on our plates?

All we're missing is an Andrew Swan specialty plate

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Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files
True North Foundation executive director Dwayne Green (left)  and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger  announce the raffle of the first printed Jets specialty licence plate in April 2013.

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Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files True North Foundation executive director Dwayne Green (left) and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger announce the raffle of the first printed Jets specialty licence plate in April 2013.

As a kid growing up before the invention of hand-held electronic pacifiers, road trips translated into tremendous boredom and many games of I Spy.

In mid-'70s Manitoba, that meant a lot of seeing "something that is brown." There are only so many cows and wheat fields kids can spot without losing I-Spy interest.

So the sight of an out-of-province licence plate provided a rare glimpse into the wider world, where people were not just "Friendly" like they are in Manitoba, but could "Live Free or Die" like they do in New Hampshire or "Show Me" something only the way a Missourian could.

It was a simple time, when UFOs were lighting up the skies above Carman, Izzy Asper was a Wolseley Liberal MLA and every motorist in Manitoba had the same, butt-ugly orange and maroon licence plate.

To a kid, there was something comforting about this sort of consistency. The idea that motor vehicles from every state and province could be identified through a standard colour scheme and slogan was highly useful in the pre-wired world.

But as the decades wore on, advances in graphic design allowed the issuing of more elaborate licence plates, such as Manitoba's current green, blue and gold representation of grain fields, wetlands, lakes and forests.

The increasing ease of printing also made it possible to issue specialty plates, which many jurisdictions embraced long before Manitoba issued a special edition for veterans in 2004.

There are now multiple licence plates for nearly every state and province. The days of graphic consistency and single state and provincial slogans are long gone.

In Kentucky, for example, you can use your licence plate to end Alzheimer's, fight cancer, preserve heritage or show off the state's enviable status as the "home of the world record smallmouth bass."

In Florida, you can protect the whales, the seas, the reefs, the dolphins and the sea turtles, which suggests the waters off the Sunshine State are in desperate need of more than licence plates for protection.

Now, in Manitoba, you can cheer on the Bombers, Jets, Goldeyes or the Brandon Wheat Kings. You can herald your status as a firefighter, a military veteran or a collector of old cars. You can support freshwater fisheries through Fish Futures and proclaim the value of Curling for Life.

And for $70, you can tell everyone else on the road you are "Animal Friendly" because you support the Winnipeg Humane Society. Justice Minister Andrew Swan helped make this announcement Friday because, apparently, justice ministers have nothing more important to do than show off metal plates bearing images of cats and dogs.

When you include the standard Manitoba plate, there are now 11 different provincial slabs of metal on the road right now. As Slurpees & Murder blogger James Hope Howard pointed out in a December post, the graphic schemes vary from the tasteful to the downright gaudy.

At some point, the province should consider whether this multitude of motor-vehicle markings will begin to water down the provincial brand. The standard plate, after all, is somewhat attractive and does a good job of telling the rest of the continent what we have.

The Selinger government has also placed itself in a precarious position, as every non-profit organization in the province may soon desire a specialty plate of its own.

In other jurisdictions, conservation efforts are among the most common specialty plates. It seems curious Manitoba, which enjoys the conceit of environmental protection, has only the Fish Futures on the conservation side.

Licence plates supporting polar bears would be a big seller. Plates advocating the protection of endangered Manitoba species -- the piping plover, western fringed prairie orchid or poweshiek skipperling -- would go a long way toward education efforts.

The province could even raise funds for its own parks and environmental protection efforts. But revenue generation does not appear to be the goal of these announcements.

Rather, Swan just seems to love going to the darn things. The province might as well create a plate to commemorate the opening of IKEA.

No one's arguing the humane society doesn't deserve a specialty plate. But with each new plate -- and every news conference -- the government looks like it's pandering. There are enough ribbon-cutting events. The next time Manitoba comes up with a specialty plate, let the organization do the talking. Otherwise, we're going to need an Andrew Swan Specialty Plate Announcement specialty plate.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 A18

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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