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‘Bearly-Collectible’ Northwest Territories Canadian License Plates

by Andy Bernstein (12/01/08).

In 1969, Northwest Territories held a contest for school children to design a license plate that would symbolize their homeland. The winning design went to a 7th-grader from Yellowknife and first appeared in 1970.

One of the most common questions I am asked as a license plate collector is: “What is the most interesting license plate in North America?” Without a doubt the answer to this question is: “The very famous and conspicuous polar bear license plates of the Northwest Territories Canada.”

Early Northwest Territories license plate were pretty basic in orange with black letters and numbers.

One great aspect of license plate collecting is the keen understanding and appreciation one gains for the geography of the world and a specific culture or subculture of a specific country or region. To get a greater sense of appreciation of the polar bear license plates as a collectible one has to look at this vast isolated remote territory of the Canadian Arctic. 

The Northwest Territories was established in 1869 and encompasses approximately 1,322,900 square miles within its borders. According to the 2006 census, the population was less than 42,000 people. In comparison for this same year, Alaska with 589,757 square miles had a population of 670,000 people. The discovery of gold in 1937, which attracted many miners and prospectors, fueled the population growth of this northern region of Canada for many years. Winters often last more than eight months of the year and there were few roads on which to travel. It was not until 1960, when the Mackenzie Highway was open, that it was possible to reach the Northwest Territories by other than water or air. As a result of geographical isolation, severe weather and the lack of adequate roads, the development of registering automobiles came much later than that of any other jurisdiction in North America.

The first license plates were not issued until 1941, and needless to say, there are only a handful of these black on white plates known to exist in collections today. Motorists with 1942 license plates were issued a windshield sticker in 1943 to revalidate their plates as a means of conserving metal for the Canadian was effort of World War II. For those registering a vehicle for the first time in 1943, new yellow-on-black plates were issued. Talk about a collectible license plate, as there are only two of these rare 1943 Northwest Territories know today! In 1954 the first slogan of “Canada’s Northland” was introduced. This slogan was retained through 1969.

The Northwest Territories plates changed colors over the years.

Occasionally, an anniversary or a slogan, such as “Explore Canada’s Arctic” would be added to the plate.

During 1969, the government of the Northwest Territories proposed a contest for school children throughout the territories to create a unique license plate that would symbolize their homeland. The winning design went to a 7th-grader from Yellowknife. This license plate, showed a walking polar bear with a blue background to represent the sky, on white numbers to represent the snow-covered ground.

In April of 1999, the eastern three-fifths of the Northwest Territories separated and became a new territory called “Nunavut.” For a while, both territories were arguing over as to who would retain the famous popular polar bear license plate design. It was finally decided and agreed that BOTH the Northwest Territories and Nunavut would keep the polar bear design and so, yet another very, very ,collectible license plate appeared and was issued in late 1999, that of Nunavut Territory, Canada. A very interesting anecdote illustrates just how collectible the license plates of these Canadian Territories are. If you travel up to either the Northwest Territories or Nunavut and attempt to rent an automobile, rental agencies will charge a deposit to ensure that the polar bear license plate will still be on the back bumper when you return the vehicle!

In 1999, the eastern three-fifths of the Northwest Territories separated and became a new territory called “Nunavut.” After a short argument, it was decided and that both would keep the polar bear design for the license plates.

As for value, a current style Northwest Territories license plate in very good or better condition would be worth between $25 and $40, while a Nunavut plate would be worth at least twice that amount. Because so few of the early issues of the 1940s are available to assess a fair market value, but for a plate in original condition from the 1945-1950 era, expect to pay at least a few thousand dollars each.


Worthologist Andy Bernstein specializes in automobile license plates

WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles

11 Responses to “‘Bearly-Collectible’ Northwest Territories Canadian License Plates”

  1. Jack Kajfasz says:

    I have a NWT plate from 1975 in mint condition and it looks exactly like the plates you show that originated in 1983 (?) I am interested in selling it…

  2. lynn gregory says:

    I have the blue license plate that is a ploar bear it says northwest territories on it but under that it has 000 and under that it says canada and 1972 This is an auto plate. I also have the little one that is about 7 inches across from rump of bear to end of his nose. It says NUNAVUT but the bear is white surrounded in dark blue on edges of plate. It is silver on back. The large plate is white glazed on back. Both were sealed and so in perfect condition not even a scratch and very shiney and pretty. The person who gave them to me as a gift said the 000 means that the governor has to inspect one and then one is saved in the state and one is bought with the 000 on it by a buyer.
    I have had them about ten years in y possession. The person who gave them to me had hundreds of license plates posted on boards from every state.
    It was his hobby. Thank you for reading this and I did look it up on line about the plates but I just do not know what the 000 stands for. Do you know? I could mail you a photo. This same person had civil war memorabilia and other beautiful antiques but has since moved away.

  3. Thank you for your comments on your Northwest Territories license plates! Both of these license plates are SAMPLE license plates. Most often SAMPLE license plates are made available to both law enforcement agencies for identification purposes and to collectors or to those that simply would like one as a unique souvenir. SAMPLE license plates usually have the letters SAMPLE stamped instead of a number, all zeros, or any of the following: 123-ABC, ABC-123, SAM-000. Your smaller plate sounds like a sample plate for a motorcycle and the larger plate a sample plate for a passenger car. The 1972 plate would be worth about $25-$40 and the more recent undated sample motorcycle plate about $10-$15. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any more questions on these plates or any others. Thanks! Andy

  4. Jonathan Steele says:

    I read your entry on NW Territories License Plates and was wondering if a matched set can command more when sold or auctioned. I have a pair from ’74 or ’75 (not sure) in very good (unused) condition. And is Ebay the best selling venue for exposure, as far as you know?

    (I’m in San Jose, CA)
    It wasn’t clear if your mention of prices was CDN or US.

  5. HI…Selling on ebay is hit or miss but indeed does provide for excellent exposure. As a general rule of thumb you should not break up a pair of plates. I would think that if you just did a regular auction starting with a low opening bid that you would receive a fair market price. All prices quoted are in US dollars.

    Thanks!

  6. Judy Hawkins says:

    I have a 1983 NWT plate in excellent condition. The #’s on it are 11-330, Canada 1983 and it is the polar bear blue on white. What is it worth? What is the best way to sell it?

    • Hi Judy. Thank you for your comment. Your 83 NWT Bear plate would be worth between $30-$45 if in real nice condition with no extra holes or bends. There are actually several auction site you could sell it on now and you may want to check these out by doing a search on line.

      Thanks again,

      ANDY

  7. David Hett says:

    Andy I have a resort in the Yukon Territory. I recently came into a number of Nunavat license plates as well as some from the NWT. The Nunavat plates have no scratches. They run from the year 00 to 05. Any idea what they are worth? With regards to the 1972 NWT plate mentioned above, I believe that 1972 was the charter year. Perhaps this adds to it’s value.

    Cheers,

    DAve

    • Hi David. Thank you for your comment! Nunavut plates are great items and while you have not indicated whether these are passenger plates are not, they would be worth about $100-$150 each. 1972 was not the first year for the NWT. This would be 1941. If you meant the first year of the BEAR shaped plate, this would be 1970.

      I hope this helps you out.

      Best regards,

      ANDY

  8. alex kruit says:

    andy,i used to be a collector of license plates,but lost
    interest,i got 15 n.w.t.plates from 1970-1983,1977 is a set
    1983 is a set,1973 low no.117,bought from alpca member
    no.18 shib pixley,all are in mint to very good condition
    and are for sale,interested???

  9. Scott Steele says:

    dont know if u are still answer questions about nwt plates i have a commerative 2000 gold polar bear license plate is it worth anything?

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