WINNIPEG — A lawyer representing Manitoba says a "Star Trek" fan wasn't allowed to keep his personalized ASIMIL8 licence plate because the word cannot be dissociated from the history of forced assimilation of Indigenous people in the province.
Manitoba Justice lawyer Charles Murray told court Monday that licence plates are owned and issued by Manitoba Public Insurance, and the insurer cannot be divorced from a historical context of "cultural genocide."
Assimilate, whether in the sense of a fictional alien race or the real history of Indigenous people in Canada, is "talking about wiping out the uniqueness of people," Murray said.
The legal challenge against MPI was launched by Winnipeg's Nick Troller over the Crown corporation's decision to revoke his personalized plate in 2017.
'Just a word'
Troller is an avid fan of the "Star Trek" TV franchise and in 2015 got the plate with the well-known words from the alien race the Borg. He put the ASIMIL8 plate in a border that stated: "We are the Borg" and "Resistance is futile."
James Kitchen, lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, argued on behalf of Troller. Kitchen told court that Troller drove around for nearly two years with the plate on his vehicle without any complaints. In fact, Kitchen said, many people asked Troller for photos with the plate.
"The word assimilate is just a word," the lawyer argued.
That changed on April 22, 2017, when a woman from Ontario posted a photo of the plate on Facebook and complained to MPI that the plate was offensive because of the history of government assimilation policies.
The judge reserved his decision.
Plate was assessed by committee, issued without concerns
Documents filed in court show multiple emails between MPI officials trying to understand how the licence plate was approved in the first plate.
Plates are denied for a variety of reasons, including if they are offensive, suggestive, discriminatory or include racial or ethnic slang. They are the property of the Crown and can be recalled at any time.
The ASIMIL8 plate was considered by a five-person committee. Internet searches were done on its meaning and it was issued without any concerns.
Troller was later contacted and told his plate was deemed inappropriate and was being recalled.
Kitchen argued the emails show it was a "knee-jerk reaction" to the complaint that violated his client's charter right to freedom of expression.
He pointed to a case where a man's licence plate was removed after the controversy around the ASIMIL8 plate.
'Small step in the wrong direction'
Kitchen said a First Nations man was upset after his NDN CAR plate was recalled earlier this year. Kitchen said the man had the plate, which references the song "Indian Cars" by Keith Secola, for years before MPI recalled the plate for being offensive.
Justice Centre president John Carpay said in an interview from Calgary after the hearing that freedom of expression cannot be trumped by some "kind of legal right to not feel offended."
"When freedoms are lost, typically, they are lost gradually — bit by bit by bit," he said.
"If a person cannot express their enthusiasm for 'Star Trek' using a word that is inherently not offensive, that is a small step in the wrong direction."
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Personalized licence plates have been controversial before.
A man in Nova Scotia is also to be in court this month over a personalized licence plate. Lorne Grabher has been trying to reinstate his "GRABHER" plate since it was revoked in 2016 by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles following an anonymous complaint.
Saskatchewan Government Insurance recently denied Dave Assman (pronounced Oss-man) a licence plate with his last name on it. In response, he put a large "ASSMAN" decal on the back of his truck.
CORRECTION: An earlier headline said the judge upheld his decision to revoke the licence plate. In fact, he reserved his decision. The story also incorrectly said a man had an 'NDN CAR' licence plate for decades.
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