‘Bearly-Collectible’ Northwest Territories Canadian License Plates

In 1969, the Canadian 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.”

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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