A guide to Canada's best, and most lame, licence plates
A vehicle’s plate is more than just a registry tool, its also a way for provinces to market themselves – some better than others. Here is your guide to Canada’s best, and most lame, licence plates
For those of us who grew up in an age before hand-held electronics, it was a universal experience: Sitting in the backseat of our parents’ (likely un-airconditioned) car on a long summer road trip, gazing at the variety of passing vehicles featuring licence plates from across Canada and the United States.
For some of us it was a game. We developed a point system — high points for plates from far-off, exotic locations. Hawaii, maybe. And no points for ubiquitous Ontario plates. Or perhaps high marks were reserved for multi-coloured plates depicting wind-swept vistas or sea voyages. Anything that was more exciting than, well, Ontario’s bland plate.
If we think of licence plates as mini billboards for the region they represent, which ones would score high points in the backseat ranking game today? To answer this imperative mid-summer question, we assembled a panel of experts to assess the modern-day aesthetic of Canada’s licence plates.
Our plate panel consists of: David Steckley, a licence plate collector and member of the Automobile Licence Place Collectors Association from Acton, Ont.; Alex Gates, curator of the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa; Erin Mclaughlin, content director at boutique marketing agency Ellis Park; and the team of designers who work at Toronto-based design and branding company Lisa Davison Design (LDD).
Here is their ranking of Canada’s provincial and territorial license plates from worst to best.
Steckley: At least Quebec features the fleur-de-lis. The slogan “Je me souviens” means something to a lot of people. I didn’t love it when it was introduced because it was political. But it’s Quebec — they’re distinctive, I’ve come to accept it.
LDD: Boring, but simple and clean. It feels French.
Mclaughlin: The bold letters and the use of dark blue says, “We know who we are, and we don’t need to make a special effort.”
11: NEW BRUNSWICK
Steckley: Not as impactful as the Nova Scotia plate, although I like the little stylized sailboat.
LDD: Feels outdated — looks like an insurance ad. The top looks like it could have been created in MS Paint. Too much white space at the bottom — maybe for when they come up with a slogan? LOL.
Mclaughlin: Time to get rid of the graphics and leave the logo, which says everything you need to know about New Brunswick’s boat building history.
Steckley: I like Alberta’s red. And anyone who’s visited Alberta has seen the wild rose everywhere. “Wild Rose Country” tells me it’s a place I’d like to visit again.
LDD: Feels off balance. The wild rose stencil is a nice touch but could have replaced the hyphen to centre the logo.
Mclaughlin: The tagline looks like a logo for a country-western band. And please, if you’re going to use the provincial flower, make sure that it’s the right colour: pink, not red.
9: NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
Steckley: The little pitcher plant graphic at the bottom doesn’t impede the visibility and adds a distinctive feature. It ties in with the province’s tourism ads, which I believe also have the pitcher plant. Solid branding job.
LDD: Feels like something is missing from the top. It could showcase something more about the province, one of the classic lighthouses or imagery of big rocks. It’s too plain.
Mclaughlin: The tiny logo makes me want to give Newfoundland a big hug.
8: BRITISH COLUMBIA
Steckley: We all know British Columbia is beautiful, and with the inclusion of its beautiful multi-coloured flag, this plate makes perfect sense.
LDD: Nice typography, simple and clean. The ripples in the provincial flag give the impression of waves. Appreciate the serif font. And the slogan is spot-on: B.C. really is the most beautiful.
Mclaughlin: A great tagline, classic font, legible colours and the provincial flag. I’m ready to book my flight to YVR.
7: PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Steckley: One of the few with a light tan background. That’s Province House on the left, home of confederation. With a fluttering Canadian flag and provincial flag, Province House and the red maple leaves, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
LDD: Very Canadian. It’s really captured a historic feel with the colours and graphics but could be toned down a bit.
Mclaughlin: The stern messaging and dull colours don’t feel like the province we know and love. Where are the sand dunes and lobsters?
Steckley: Any Canadian should know that Yukon had the gold rush. It has had the miner or prospector on the plate since 1952. It’s a very distinctive graphic and it remains so today.
LDD: The elements between the colour, illustration and bars clash. Not sure what the man is doing, and the top and bottom could use an update. Needs a refresh.
Mclaughlin: Yukon is stuck in another century: a time when people would know the crouching man is panning for gold, not butter.
Steckley: Distinctive, yet simple and legible. Love the sheaf of wheat in the middle, and the slogan is great.
LDD: Love the teal paired with the gold. The wheat illustration is a nice, simple way to describe the province. This sums up Saskatchewan … lots of field and sky.
Mclaughlin: Thank you, Sask! You’ve combined a traditional icon with stylish teal typography and wrapped it up with an inspiring slogan.
Steckley: It reflects that Manitoba has forest, but also lakes and flat spaces. It’s one whole picture, but I don’t think that hurts the legibility.
Gates: I’ve always enjoyed this slogan: “Friendly Manitoba.” A description of the people rather than the place.
LDD: Colourful and artistic, really adds personality to the province. The colours and scenery make it feel unique.
3: NOVA SCOTIA
Steckley: It’s got that beautiful picture of the Bluenose schooner. I’m not a sailor, but you’ve got to love this plate and the slogan.
LDD: Represents the province’s geography and nautical theme well. Definitely has a Nova Scotia vibe.
Mclaughlin: The elaborate illustration of the Bluenose is a bit disconnected from the tagline. An “Ocean Playground” makes me think of dolphins and mermaids, not historic ships.
2: NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Steckley: There’s a blue tint in the white background, likely to represent the aurora borealis. Even people who aren’t collectors love this plate.
Gates: It’s iconic. You’re not going to find anything like that around the world. I’m told it’s the most stolen licence plate in the world.
LDD: The die-cut with the landscape silhouettes makes it feel adventurous. Not sure if two bears are necessary?
Mclaughlin: It’s straight to the point: If you want to see (polar) bears, go to the Northwest Territories.
Steckley: Some might argue it’s too busy, featuring a polar bear, an Inuksuk and streams of northern lights in the background, but it’s a real favourite with collectors. The incorporation of Inuktitut symbols is classy. Hats off to Nunavut.
Gates: Nunavut recently changed from having the same polar bear license plate as the N.W.T. It’s a great plate visually and sums up northern Canada.
LDD: Love it. Fun, artistic, majestic, it includes all the exciting parts of Nunavut. They understood the assignment!
And coming in at No. 13 …
Where is Ontario in our ranking? Well, the province’s plate, which is currently being redesigned after it was discovered the new plate, which was changed by the Ford government in 2019, had visibility issues, finished last among our panel. The two-tone blue plates with white lettering also had a new slogan, “A place to grow,” replacing the old “Yours to discover.” While we wait to see what the replacement plate will look like, here are some comments from our experts.
Steckley: We’ve had the crown (icon) since 1937. There’s no other identifying icon, which, frankly as a collector and as an Ontarian, disappoints me greatly.
LDD: Boring. Not a great representation of Ontario. So many missed opportunities: Where are the lakes, the city capitals…? Do better, Ontario.
Mclaughlin: Try a little harder, Ontario. Use a provincial icon that actually makes people want to “discover” it.