The "NDN CAR" can get back on the road in Winnipeg.

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This article was published 24/10/2019 (979 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The "NDN CAR" can get back on the road in Winnipeg.

Manitoba Public Insurance has returned Bruce Spence's personalized licence plates, following an out-of-court settlement.

Bruce Spence says the licence plates are an homage to the folk-rock song NDN Kars (Indian Cars) by Anishinaabe musician Keith Secola. (Colleen Simard /files)</p>

Bruce Spence says the licence plates are an homage to the folk-rock song NDN Kars (Indian Cars) by Anishinaabe musician Keith Secola. (Colleen Simard /files)

"I'm very happy with the outcome," Spence said Thursday. "It was a bit of an arduous journey getting here."

The Cree man had his plates — issued by MPI in 2012 — revoked earlier this year; the Crown corporation said "NDN" was identified it a "phrase or innuendo that may be considered offensive."

Spence told the Free Press his personalized licence plates are an homage to the folk-rock song NDN Kars, by Anishinaabe musician Keith Secola. The song is available on several YouTube videos, one of which includes a message from Secola advocating for driving sober and using proper child safety restraints in vehicles.

Rather than offending anyone, the licence plates drew positive reactions, especially from other Indigenous people, said Spence, a lineup producer at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

"You pull up to any reserve gas bars, including the ones in town, and get all kinds of hoots and hollers and thumbs-up," Spence said. When he'd drive down to the Dakotas with the NDN CAR plates, he'd get high-fives from strangers, he said. "Everyone knows that song. It was good — I enjoyed having those plates."

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms provided pro bono legal representation to help Spence get his presonalized plates back. It filed an application to Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench challenging MPI's decision, arguing it violated Spence's freedom of expression.

Now that MPI has returned the personalized plates, the court case has been dropped, said centre lawyer James Kitchen from Calgary.

Spence said he received brand new NDN CAR licence plates, and planned to put them on his 2010 Toyota Prius by the weekend.

"It's totally a freedom of expression issue for me," he said. "Taking one of the best songs in any country and being able to put it on my car was an expression of my Indigeneity. When that was revoked, it was pretty hurtful — especially when they didn't give you a chance to show cause or explain your point of view.
"It was so arbitrary and wrong, I can't believe they did it."

Censoring personalized licence plates may not seem like a big deal but, if left unchallenged, more significant freedoms could be taken away, said Kitchen.

"History bears this out — when you're losing free speech in one small area, it doesn't take long before you're losing free speech in big, important areas," he said. "With governments at all levels, we're seeing a dramatic uptick in censorship. We've moved into the realm of compelled speech.

"If the government opens all these spaces for personal expression, then arbitrarily picks who gets to express themselves, that's not going in a good direction."

As a government body, MPI is precluded from violating the freedom of expression rights of vehicle owners it invites to express themselves on personalized plates, and cannot revoke personalized plates simply to avoid controversy or to appease someone who has complained, he said.

By returning Spence’s plates, MPI implicitly acknowledged revoking them was improper, Kitchen said. "This is a significant victory for freedom of expression in Canada."

Earlier this week, a court decision was made in the case of another Winnipegger's revoked personalized plates.

The Court of Queen’s Bench ruled Tuesday that MPI was justified in revoking Nicholas Troller's Star Trek nod "ASIMIL8" plate in 2017, even though it violated his constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The court decided it is "reasonable" to determine the word "assimilate" is "offensive" and to censor a personalized licence plate on that basis, said the justice centre, which also represented Troller pro bono.

The ASIMIL8 plates were issued in 2015, and put on his family vehicle, attached to frames that read: "We are the Borg" and "Resistance is futile" — references to the iconic aliens in Star Trek science fiction lore.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.