Indigenous man challenges Manitoba Public Insurance decision to revoke his personalized “NDN CAR” license plate

The Justice Centre today announced that it will represent Bruce Spence, a Nehiyaw Indian living in Winnipeg, as he challenges the decision of Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) to revoke his personalized “NDN CAR” license plate because it “may be considered offensive.”

Mr. Spence is a producer with Aboriginal People’s Television Network. He purchased the personalized plate about seven years ago. He chose the inscription on the plate as a playful reference to the popular 1992 folk-rock song “Indian Cars” by Indigenous musician Keith Secola. The music video for the song features an old broken-down car, which was what Mr. Spence was driving when he purchased the plate.

On May 10, 2018, MPI staff phoned Mr. Spence to tell him that they had received a complaint regarding the plate, claiming that is was offensive and “ethnic slang.”Mr. Spence wrote to Manitoba Crown Services Minister, Colleen Mayer, to express his concern with MPI’s decision to revoke his plate and explaining the meaning and context of his plate:

I have received nothing but happy smiles and thumbs up signs from fellow travelers across Canada and the United States because people recognize the sign for what it is, a tribute to being an indigenous person driving a car…this song is an anthem to humble people just trying to get around the best way we can.

Mr. Spence heard nothing further from MPI regarding the plate until February 7, 2019, when MPI wrote to Mr. Spence informing him of the decision to revoke his personalised license plate. MPI stated in the letter that it was in the process of reviewing all personalized plates and that Mr. Spence’s plate “has been identified in our review as phrases or innuendos that may be considered offensive.”

Mr. Spence surrendered the plate to MPI. With the assistance of the Justice Centre, he now plans to take court action against MPI over its decision.

MPI’s review of all personalized licence plates in the province follows its decision to revoke the Star Trek-themed “ASIMIL8” personalized plate because MPI deemed the plate offensive to indigenous Canadians.
This case, Nicholas Troller v. Manitoba Public Insurance, was heard by the Court of Queen’s Bench on April 8, 2019. The judge has reserved his decision.

“Government entities like MPI are required to consider the Charter right to freedom of expression,” explains lawyer and Justice Centre President John Carpay. “That MPI would go after a personalized plate that playfully refers to a well-liked song that has cultural significance for many Indigenous people demonstrates a lack of cultural sense and understanding. More importantly, this underscores how a government agency is not competent to referee evident expressions of humour in culture,” continued Carpay.