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Home Story The story behind our beloved, iconic polar bear plates

The story behind our beloved, iconic polar bear plates

When you’re driving around in the Northwest Territories, expect to see many polar bears on the roads.  Not the actual Arctic animals, but the iconic polar bear licence plates which are now coveted by collectors worldwide.

But what are the origins of the Northwest Territories’ famous polar bear licence plate? Back when the NWT borders stretched westward from Baffin Island in the east to the Mackenzie Mountains in the west, vehicles were a rarer sight than polar bears.

For the first half of the 20th century, there weren’t even any highways into the NWT and there were only a few streets to drive on when you did have a vehicle— which in those days were mainly trucks.

Only in 1941 did the territorial government require motorists in the NWT to register their vehicles and display licence plates. Those first licence plate designs were rectangular, with simple colour schemes such as orange numbers on a black backdrop and shaped similarly to the standard issued plates that can be found pretty much everywhere in North America today.

When the Mackenzie Highway was connected to the south around Great Slave Lake in the early 1960s, drivers could access more of the NWT by road, bringing many new vehicles into the territory.

In honour of  the NWT’s centennial in 1970, the government introduced the first version of the now-famous polar bear plate, which was designed by 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.

The unique shape of the NWT’s licence plate still makes it stand apart from every other vehicle registration plate around. Back in 1957, auto manufacturers and the governments throughout North America agreed to standardize the shape of licence plates. Every vehicle across Canada, the United States and Mexico needed a registration plate that was six inches (15 cm) in height and 12 inches (30 cm) wide with five pre-determined bolt holes… but nowhere did it say it had to be a rectangle.

So the polar bear plate design met every one of the legal standards, measuring six inches at its tallest and 12 inches at its widest, but all within its polar bear shape boundaries. 

Even back in 1970, the design stood out as something special. It was named “Plate of the Year” by the Automobile Licence Plate Collectors Association.

Other colour combinations and variants soon followed the original white-on-blue design. The well-known 1973-edition celebrating the centennial of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police featured a yellow border around the bear. The now famous blue-on-white design with the slogan “Explore Canada’s Arctic” first appeared in 1986.

By the 1980s, motorcyclists in the NWT also wanted to share in the polar bear licence look. Led by citizen George Morin, they launched a petition in 1983 asking the territorial government for the right to have polar bear licence plates on their bikes as well

Some 300 supporters signed, responding to the petition’s question, ”as a territorial resident would you encourage NWT motorcycle plates to be the polar bear shape?”

Many signatories added comments like, “equal rights for bikes” and “bikers are not any less citizens than motor vehicle licence holders.”

A member of the NWT legislature tabled their petition in the assembly and this move led to changes which, in 1984, allowed NWT bikers to also put polar-bear shaped plates on their choppers—mini versions of the larger polar bear vehicle plates, measuring only 4 inches (10 cm) by 7 inches (17 cm).

Today about 1,500 motorcycles are registered in the territory and while the NWT has nearly 4,000 km (932 miles) of roads for touring, you may spot these unique licence plates outside the territory as well.

So beloved is the polar bear licence plate in the Northern consciousness that when Nunavut separated from the NWT in 1999 a minor skirmish erupted over which jurisdiction would keep the iconic design. The NWT had created the plate, but most of the polar bears’ territory ended up in Nunavut after division. The plate debate eventually gave rise to an annual hockey tournament in Rankin Inlet that is still played to this day, with the original idea being that the winning team—from NWT or Nunavut—would get to keep the polar bear licence plate.

Ultimately, the licence plate debate came down to copyright. The NWT legally owned the polar bear design, although that was licensed to Nunavut until 2012. By that time, the tooling dies used to stamp the steel for the licence plate were in need of replacement. The NWT also wanted to make the switch to more environmentally-friendly aluminum. So Nunavut then replaced its polar bear licence plate with a new rectangular design featuring colourful images of a polar bear, inuksuk and the Northern Lights. The NWT, meanwhile, updated its licence plate with a simple slogan: ‘Spectacular.’

The polar bear licence plate remains a hot collector’s item. The territorial government has issued several decorative versions in recent years to commemorate historic moments such as 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 licence plate on cars, café walls and in private collections all over the world. True enthusiasts spend years hunting down hard-to-find variations from past decades for their collections. As the value of the licence plates increases, there have even been reports of some stolen right off vehicles.

Thankfully, the polar bear licence plates aren’t going away any time soon. When you make the trip of a lifetime and visit the NWT, you’ll find them everywhere.  You can buy your own souvenir polar bear plate here!

Ready for the road to adventure? Plan your route along the best scenic road trips through the NWT – you’re sure to find a spectacular horizon calling to you.

Read a kilometre-by-kilometre guide to the NWT’s best road trip routes to point you in the direction of iconic photo spots, thriving communities, and detours to truly spectacular landscapes and unique experiences – this place will change you.

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