WINNIPEG—An Indigenous man in Manitoba has had his NDN CAR personalized licence plate returned, but an avid “Star Trek” fan learned resistance is futile in his court fight to get his Borg-themed plate back.
Nick Troller had filed a legal challenge against Manitoba Public Insurance over its decision to revoke the ASIMIL8 plate after receiving a complaint that it was offensive to Indigenous people.
A judge ruled this week that it was reasonable for the insurer to take back Troller’s plate, because the word is connected to the Indigenous experience and government policies of forced assimilation.
In isolation it may not be offensive, but the word “has taken on a new meaning within this country,” wrote Queen’s Bench Justice Sheldon Lanchberry.
“I must consider the current meaning of assimilate in the broader context,” he said. “The word assimilate has a very specific meaning outside of what the fans of the Borg and ‘Star Trek’ believe from works of fiction.”
James Kitchen, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, had argued on Troller’s behalf.
He said he was disappointed the plate was not returned, but added Troller’s case may have played a part in why the insurer, in an out-of-court settlement the Justice Centre negotiated, decided to return Bruce Spence’s NDN CAR plate.
“This is a significant victory for freedom of expression in Canada,” Kitchen said in Calgary.
Spence, a Nehiyaw man from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, got the licence plate about seven years ago to honour “Indian Cars,” one of his favourite songs by Indigenous musician Keith Secola.
There were no problems until May 2018 when he was contacted by MPI. Spence has said the insurer told him it was considered offensive and ethnic slang. It had been taken away in February.
MPI spokesman Brian Smiley said the insurer reached out to Spence and others and, in the end, it was determined the plate could be returned.
“We wanted to get it right,” Smiley said.
He referred to the judge’s ruling when asked for comment about the “Star Trek” plate.
Troller got the plate in 2015 with the well-known saying by the alien race. He put the ASIMIL8 plate in a border that stated: “We are the Borg” and “Resistance is futile.”
Court heard that in 2017 a woman from Ontario posted a photo of the plate on Facebook and made a complaint to MPI saying it was offensive.
Kitchen argued in court that “assimilate” is just a word and that revoking the plate was a violation of Troller’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
The insurer argued it was entitled to place reasonable limits on free expression and that licence plates are government property.
Plates are denied for a variety of reasons, including if they are offensive, suggestive, discriminatory or include racial or ethnic slang.
The insurer told court that “assimilate” is as offensive to Indigenous people as a swastika, Confederate battle flag, or racial slur printed on a piece of government-issued identification.
Lawyers added that academic literature about the “Star Trek” television series describe it as being a “thinly disguised metaphor for colonialism.”
Kitchen said he is encouraged the judge acknowledged that personalized plates are places for constitutionally protected free expression.
The plates have been controversial before.
In Nova Scotia, Lorne Grabher went to court over his GRABHER plate, which was revoked in 2016.
Saskatchewan Government Insurance 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.
“It will be interesting to see if governments continue to clamp down or if they slack off and actually let people express themselves on a space where governments have invited them to express themselves,” Kitchen said.
By Kelly Geraldine Malone