Much ado has been made about Ontario graphic plates over the years. A small-but-loyal group of collectors has been avidly following the new graphic issues and ordering next-out-of-box plates since the beginning, over 20 years ago. Every so often, a new graphic makes its debut, an existing graphic gets a face-lift, or a poorly-selling graphic is discontinued.
I remember seeing a graphic plate for the very first time. It was sometime in the late winter of 1996. I was still at the University of Western Ontario, trudging through the slushy Middlesex College parking lot on a drizzly, overcast day. I was on my way to yet another three-hour laboratory experiment session as part of my program. I saw something unusual on a parked car and stopped to look. It was a new, reflective Ontario plate that had a picture of a common loon on the left side. The plate number, WLN 14, was right-justified to accommodate the loon. I stood there and stared at the plate. Was it a special wildlife / nature conservation issue? The number could have been personalized, but it could also have been a serial number of some kind. I didn’t know. But I stood there for a couple of minutes, with my mind blown.
I took the moment in and let the plate burn its image into my memory. This was 1996; I had no digital camera to snap a picture, and I had only joined ALPCA the previous summer, so there were only a couple of people I knew. There was no social media, and the closest thing was the nascent ListServ e-mail list of plate geeks, but I wasn’t yet in the habit of using e-mail as a regular communication tool. The MTO didn’t have a web site that I could find, so there was no checking online. Even The Back Bumper——this very web site, which has now been running continuously for more than 21 years——hadn’t yet been created.
For several weeks, this particular loon plate was the only graphic plate that I would see. Eventually, I saw a couple of other graphics. One was a washed-out white blob from a distance (later discovered to be a trillium). Another had the Leafs logo. Eventually, I found a list of the available graphics. They were up for sale to anyone with a driver’s licence. The promo materials from the MTO encouraged people to buy them as gifts, so you didn’t need to attach them to a vehicle at the time of purchase. Great news for collectors!
I quickly acquired a Leafs graphic sample plate, but I wanted a next-from-box issue with a serial number instead of the generic “GOTEAM” treatment. Next-from-box pairs cost about $50 for a pair. I had very little money back then, but I reasoned I could buy a couple of pairs and then sell the mates to other plate geeks to make half my cost back. But what to choose? The Star Trek logo was available, so I bought a pair of those. And for the other pair… hmm… I wanted one with a splash of colour, but the graphics didn’t really grab me. I opted for a Queen’s University pair, just for its tricolour flag of red, gold and blue. I had no affiliation with Queen’s, but there was no UWO graphic option. If there was, I would have jumped on it.
The problem I found with the graphic plates——aside from being a little dull as compared to what some American States were doing——was that the graphics didn’t really speak to me. I had lost interest in baseball because of the 1994 strike. I wasn’t a rabid Leafs fan. I wasn’t yet living in Ottawa, so the Senators weren’t on my radar. I don’t follow basketball, so I didn’t want a Raptors plate. The trillium looked ugly to me (it would later be re-screened and much-improved). And none of my schools or other organizations had a graphic.
This case of the graphic "blahs" has largely persisted with me through the years. I’ve rediscovered my love of baseball, so the Jays plate with their updated logo was a natural choice. And I have always enjoyed Ontario’s provincial red ensign flag, so that’s been on my car, too. Even though there are many more choices now than there were in 1996, I still can’t find much else that I’d want to display on my car.
That got me to thinking… what graphics would I want on my car, if I could snap my fingers and make them appear? They’d have to be Ontario-based, and they’d have to mean something to me. And, as most Ontario collectors understand, the province is unlikely to redesign its graphic plates to incorporate new colours or wallpaper-style backgrounds, so I won’t bother with that. After thinking about previously established plates, and doing some photoshopping, here now is my wish list, in no particular order: (Permission was not obtained from the copyright holders of any of these logos. But if they discover these images, I hope they are inspired to talk to the MTO and establish a graphic plate. They're welcome for the idea.)
My alma mater, the University of Western Ontario (UWO), is now called Western University. When I was a student there, I would have bought a set of UWO plates in a heartbeat. It’s a huge university——lots of well-known programs, and a beautiful campus, too. But in the 20+ years since I’ve graduated, Western hasn’t ever had a graphic plate, and I myself have had 20 years to become more enamoured with other Ontario institutions. I suspect that a Western plate would be a brisk seller, though.
Lighthouses are cool. Ontario has a lot of them, of course, as it spans the entire north shore of the Great Lakes. But Ontario doesn’t really have a shipping / maritime / lighthouse heritage society, so there isn’t a driving force to put a lighthouse on a plate. The Abino lighthouse (left) is an interesting one, and so is Long Point (right). A proper graphic design would be needed, as opposed to the stock-image approach that I’ve taken here.
I’m a proud Canadian, but I'm not wild about the Canadian flag that is presently offered on Ontario plates. It’s a misshapen caricature of the real thing. There is a specific geometric construct to the leaf, and the flag should be twice as long as it is high. If they just put the au naturel flag on the plate, with no waving and no disproportionate shapes, I’d happily buy one.
CHEO Foundation - The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario is a big deal in this neck of the woods. They’re continually engaging in fundraising to support the hospital, which in turn has benefited both of my children at various points. I don’t know the costs / formulas that are needed for an organization to get its own plate going, and how much support they may receive in return, but a CHEO Foundation plate would probably be a popular choice, if one were available. The same would go for the Sick Kids Foundation in Toronto, but their typeset logo is a bit austere for me.
Everybody goes to visit the CN Tower at some point. Every picture of the Toronto skyline includes it. Drake used it as a nod to his hometown on his recent album cover. It needn’t be a skinny vertical needle, nor need it be a regurgitated corporate logo. With a bit of artistic imagination, it could be a reasonably popular choice. As for this graphic, it took five minutes to splice two images together. A pro could do better. Point is, a CN Tower plate would be cool.
I have long been a big fan of Gord Downie, and I was moved by his efforts to bring aboriginal history, mistreatment and awareness into the national consciousness. I’ll say it again: I don’t know the ins and outs of charitable fundraising, but an opportunity might exist to boost the Downie-Wenjack Fund through a plate like this. Supporters of aboriginal reconciliation and CanRock fans alike would be interested in this. I’d add this one to my collection, after letting my car wear it for a while.
Ontario has a giant pool of junior hockey talent, and the OHL has four divisions’ worth of teams with enthusiastic fan bases. Why not have OHL plates? Since the MTO seems to be printing off specific "Tant À Découvrir" graphic plates one pair at a time as they are ordered, it seems reasonable that someone could order a next-from-box OHL plate, with a number like 01OH36, and just specify their OHL team of choice. Having grown up in Sault Ste. Marie——the junior home of Gretzky, Hartsburg, Vanbiesbrouck, Thornton, and others——I’d order a Hounds plate quicker than a Thornton slapshot. Imagine the possibilities! Windsor Spitfires, Ottawa 67s, Erie Otters… One need not be a Leafs or Senators loyalist to be a hockey fan in Ontario.
The outpouring of support, respect, and grief that Canadians have displayed when one of its fallen sons or daughters returns home for the final time is truly special. Enough so, that Ontario has designated the portion of Highway 401 from Trenton to Toronto as the Highway of Heroes. The shield signs are relatively new fixtures on the roadside, but they already have become iconic. Ontario already has the option of supporting its troops with the purchase of a yellow-ribbon plate, but why not put the sign on a plate? It’s stoic and meaningful all at once.
Canadian farmers work harder than most for a living. A close friend of mine runs a dairy farm south of Ottawa. She works her butt off. The care of the animals, cost of energy, maintenance of equipment… there are so many aspects of farming that must be covered before the final product comes into play. Other jurisdictions have a “support farmers” plate, but not Ontario. I’m not up on all of the various associations that exist in Ontario to advocate for dairy, chicken, egg, pork or grain farming, but wouldn’t it be nice to acknowledge them somehow?
I can’t really be a Leafs fan in the greater Ottawa area without drawing unwanted attention. I was a Leafs fan by default when living in Sault Ste. Marie and London. I didn’t really have reason to pay attention to the Ottawa Senators until I moved to the nation’s capital almost twenty years ago. Starting then, The Sens embarked on a dozen-or-so years of being a lock for a playoff spot, and made it to the finals in 2007. Present rebuild aside, they’ve provided a lot of fun times in this town. Why don't I have a Senators plate on my car by now? There's only one reason: I hate the Roman centurion logo. Hate, hate, hate. Can’t stand it. Never could. The throwback Ottawa Senators “O” logo has taken the place of the dumb centurion at centre ice, and there are rumblings that the team may switch the logo entirely. I like the throwback logo. It’s simple and pays homage to the cup-winning teams of old. It’s time to put the O on a plate.
If there’s one person whom nearly every Canadian can agree is worthy of unanimous admiration, it’s Terry Fox. He was a resident of BC, of course, but his Marathon of Hope really started to take off in Ontario, and it was at mile 3339, near Thunder Bay, where he was ultimately forced to stop. A stoic memorial now stands nearby. I figured that a suitable Ontario-based tribute might be an image of the memorial itself. I whipped this graphic up in ten minutes, and it’s just a first draft… nowhere near as clean as I would envision a final version to be. Maybe the image would be taken from a different angle, or maybe it could be an image of Terry himself, as opposed to the statue. Would it be a Canadian Cancer Society fundraiser? Who knows. But if Terry Fox was on a plate, in a respectful and meaningful way, it would be a wonderful choice to have.
Of all the causes that I hold dear, the War Amps of Canada is number one. My son was born with an amputation, and he has been a member of the War Amps’ CHAMP program since he was an infant. We regularly attend the CHAMP seminars, where the kids can hang out, learn from each other, and feel unconditionally accepted. The War Amps have given us advice, and support in acquiring my son’s new prostheses. They don’t receive government money, and they raise all their funds on their own. I donate to them monthly, and I use their keytags, and my car wears a Drivesafe decal on the rear window. If ever there was an Ontario-based organization that ought to be featured in a graphic on our plates, it’s the War Amps. If ever it happened, I’d be first in line to buy a set.