It’s an icon of the North known to drivers—and coveted by collectors—all over the world. But where did the Northwest Territories’ famous polar bear licence plate come from?
To find out, we have to go back to a time when automobiles were rarer here than polar bears. Back when the Northwest Territories stretched westward from Baffin Island to the Mackenzie Mountains.
For the first half of the twentieth century, there were no highways into the NWT and few streets to drive when you did have a car.
It wasn’t until 1941 that the government required motorists in the NWT to register their vehicles and display a licence plate. Those first plate designs were rectangular, with simple colour schemes like orange numbers over a black backdrop—not unlike the standard issue plates you find pretty much everywhere.
But when the Mackenzie Highway was extended north of Great Slave Lake in the early 1960s, drivers could access more of the Northwest Territories by road, bringing droves of new vehicles into the territory.
When it came time to commemorate the NWT’s centennial in 1970, the government introduced the first version of its now-famous polar bear plate. The idea came from none other than legendary NWT Commissioner Stuart Hodgson—the first appointed leader from Ottawa to reside in the territory. The original licence plate featured a blue background with white numbering and the first plate issued (‘1’) was given to Hodgson.
Colours aside, it’s the unique shape of the NWT’s licence plate that makes it stand apart from every other vehicle registration plate on the planet. Back in 1957, auto manufacturers and the governments of North America agreed to standardize the shape of licence plates. Every vehicle in every jurisdiction across Canada, the United States, and Mexico needed a registration plate that was six inches in height and 12 inches wide with five pre-determined bolt holes. But they never said it had to be a rectangle! The polar bear plate cleverly meets every one of the legal standards, measuring six inches at its tallest and 12 inches at its widest, but all within its polar bear boundaries.
Even back in 1970, the design stood out as something special. It was named “Plate of the Year” by the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association.
Other colour combinations and variants soon followed the original white-on-blue design. A well-known 1973-edition celebrated the centennial of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a yellow border around the bear. The now-famous blue-on-white design, adorned with the slogan “Explore Canada’s Arctic,” first appeared in 1986.
So beloved is the plate in the Northern consciousness that when Nunavut split from the NWT in 1999 a minor skirmish erupted over who would keep the iconic design. The Northwest Territories created the plate, but now the vast majority of polar bear territory was found in Nunavut. The debate eventually spawned an annual hockey tournament in Rankin Inlet that’s still played to this day, with the original idea being that the winning side—NWT or Nunavut—would get to keep the plate.
Ultimately, the plate debate came down to copyright. The NWT legally owned the polar bear design, though it licensed its use to Nunavut until 2012. By that time, the dies used to stamp the steel for the plate were in need of replacement and the NWT wanted to make the switch to the more environmentally-friendly aluminum. Nunavut replaced its polar bear plate with a new rectangular design featuring the colourful images of a polar bear, inuksuk, and the Aurora. The NWT, meanwhile, updated its plate with a simple and effective slogan: ‘Spectacular.’
The polar bear plate is still a hot collector’s item. The territorial government has issued several decorative versions in recent years to commemorate historic moments like the opening of the NWT’s newest roadway, and Canada’s only road to the Arctic Ocean: the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
Today, you can find the polar bear plate adorning cars, cafe walls, and private collections all over the world. True enthusiasts will spend years hunting down hard-to-find variations from past decades to proudly add to their collections. There have even been reports of plates stolen right off of people’s cars!
Thankfully, the polar bear licence plates aren’t going away any time soon. When you’re able to make the journey to the Northwest Territories, you’ll quickly discover that some polar bear sightings aren’t so rare.
And, you can buy your own souvenir polar bear plate here.