British Columbia Passenger License Plates
1952 - 1954

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The period between 1931 and 1976 is considered to be the "Prison Era" when BC plates were manufactured by inmates at Oakalla Prison in Burnaby.

*     *     *     *     *

The Totem!  A polarizing license plate in its day and ultimately an ill-fated one, but also one of the most visually striking designs the province ever issued (as well as a favourite amongst collectors), it represents the confluence of a number of different forces buffeting public policy debates in British Columbia at this time; from resource and northern development, to tourism promotion, the creeping dominance of car culture and, finally, early contestations over identity.

The Totem

While British Columbia had attempted to use renewable license plates between 1918 and 1922, these had been abandoned due to concerns around theft and identification.

Despite the technology have not advanced much in the proceeding 30 years - metal tabs and windshield stickers remained the common options - the rationing of the War Years had underscored the wasteful demands of annual license plate production.

In response, jurisdictions across North America were exploring the idea of “permanent” license plate with renewed interest by the late 1940s.

In British Columbia, this took the form of the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) commissioning an efficiency study by the firm of Kellogg and Stevenson (“efficiency experts”) to make recommendation on a “permanent” license plate.

On March 18, 1950, Attorney-General, Gordon Wismer, unveiled a suite of legislative changes to the Motor Vehicle Act based on the recommendations of Kellogg and Stevenson to streamline the operation of the MVB. One of the major changes announced was the introduction of five-year license plates that would be renewed through the use of metal tabs.

Due to production timelines, the five-year plates would not be ready until 1952 as renewal strips were already being manufactured in Oakalla for use in 1951. George Hood, Superintendent of the MVB did announce that a “heavy-duty” license plate would be made for issuance in 1952 capable of withstanding five years of use ...

For anyone who has ever held a 1950 British Columbia license plate that has been made out of steel versus the Totem license plate made of aluminum, it is readily evident that the province did not, in fact, produce a “heavy-duty” license plate in 1952 that would be capable of withstanding five continuous years of use.

“B.C.'s five-year aluminum license plates won't even last one year” was the prediction made by a Port Moody trucking company after it was fined for not displaying a front license plate in October of 1952. This was because the plates were proving flimsy and unable to withstand the normal vibrations and wear-and-tear associated with the operation of a truck.

The challenges presented by the use of aluminum for license plates in this era would have been known to the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) as the material experienced a bit of a fad in the immediate post-war period, with issuing authorities across the U.S. and even in some Canadian provinces experimenting with it.

Connecticut had kicked started the trend in 1937 when it became the first state to use an unfinished aluminum base, which also happened to become the first successful multi-year “permanent” license plate (used for 19 straight years).  In Canada, Alberta would issue the first unfinished aluminum plate in 1939, but the use of aluminum would not really take off until after the end of the Second World War.

This, according to Bill Johnson (Early New Mexico License Plates), was a result of the transition from a wartime economy and a surplus of tens of thousands of unneeded military aircraft - either finished or still under production - in factories across the US. The vast majority of these planes would be scrapped, making available a significant amount of aluminum at very competitive prices. The following gallery is an example of this:

The use of aluminum was, however, presenting a number of challenges, the most notable of which was its durability (as noted above by the Port Moody trucking company), as the plates were prone to fatigue cracks caused by road induced vibration which ultimately resulted in them becoming damaged and potentially falling off vehicles. This prompted a number of states to abandon the use of aluminum in the late 1940s after only a single year.

A number of other states, however, tried to improve the durability of Aluminum plates in the late-1940s by experimenting with a “waffle” design which used a hatch-textured base to add strength to the plate:

Despite this innovation, the “waffle” design did not provide much better and was generally not used for more than a year or two (with the exception of South Dakota which used this type of plate from 1948-51).

So, knowing all of the potential problems with aluminum, why did British Columbia announce in 1951 that it would be using this material for its “permanent” license plates?

In the late 1940s, the provincial government wanted to modernize the province’s rugged north and increase the area’s population. It invited the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) to tour B.C.’s northwest to determine whether it was suitable for a notoriously energy-intensive aluminum plant.

By 1951, the provincial government and Alcan had entered into a whopping $500-million partnership — about $5 billion in [2022] dollars — to build a wildly complex hydroelectric system that would power an aluminum smelter in a coastal town that did not yet exist: Kitimat.

To promote the new aluminum industry, the province decided to “popularize” the metal by using it on license plates.

Alcan Smelter at Kitimat (circa 1954)

Ironically, this booster for Kitimat, “The Aluminum City” is made of steel!
These booster were to be attached above or below one's regular license plate.

Further influencing the design of the 1952 license plate was the revelation in 1950 that, for the first time, Canadian tourists had spent more in the United States than had American tourists coming to Canada.

In May of that year, the American Consul General in Vancouver, Alfred Klieforth, had given a speech to the Vancouver Junior Chamber of Commerce in which he suggested that Americans travel to Canada in order to “find different things from those seen at home” and that some organization should seize on the colorful traditions of the people of different nationalities in Vancouver and develop them.  Klieforth then mentioned license plates as the ideal way to “increase the tourist trade” through the use of a unique symbol or slogan.

Taking their cue, local business leaders determined that British Columbia needed differentiate itself from the rest of the continent as a tourist destination and that the best way to do this was through the commodification of West Coast Native art culture - namely the totem pole.

To this end, the “Totem-Land Society” was formed in July of 1950 and included a “who's who” of the Vancouver political and business elite. Honourary positions were granted to the Premier (Byron Johnson), Attorney-General (Gordon Wismer), Minister of Trade and Industry (Leslie Eyres), and President of the BC Native Brotherhood (Chief William Scow). Active positions included the Mayor of Vancouver (Charles Thompson), President of the PNE (H.M. King), President of the Vancouver Board of Trade (William Swan), President of the BCAA (Peard Sutherland), and so on ...

In announcing the group, Mayor Thompson declared its purpose was to help “publicize B.C. and preserve the Indian science of totem-carving” with the specific goal of lobbying the provincial government to include a Thunderbird totem pole emblem and “Totem-Land” slogan on British Columbia license plates.

While the inclusion of a totem slogan and emblem was reported to be a “long standing dream” of the group's honourary solicitor R. Rowe Holland, it was the Society's Secretary, Harry Duker who was the “power behind [the] movement to popularize [the] totem pole as [a] tourist attraction.”

Duker's job of getting the emblem on license plates was certainly aided by the presence in the Society of Wismer, who was responsible for the MVB as Attorney-General, and Eyres. Both men were also reported to have endorsed the idea of a totem emblem.

At left is Harry Duker, whose shtick included always being seen sporting a neck tie displaying a totem design (as shown). At centre is R. Rowe Holland and at right is Attorney-General Gordon Wismer.


Like clockwork, the Vancouver Province newspaper chimes in with an editorial a few days later praising these “publicly-spirited men” and extolling the virtues of a totem pole on BC license plates (“free advertising”!).

A mere one-month later, the Society appeared to have achieved its objective when Superintendent Hood (who reported to Wismer) announced that “the new semi-permanent license plates, to be issued in 1952, will carry the Thunderbird figure as emblematic of B.C.” (NOTE: the inclusion of an emblem on a license plate was labeled by the press as going “American”)

In rejecting the inclusion of the “Totem Land” slogan, Hood provided a somewhat implausible excuse of the dies for the new plates having already been settled upon and it was too late to adjust these for the slogan (but not the dies?).  More likely was that there simply was not enough space on the new plates to accommodate the date, serial number, jurisdiction and, now, the inclusion of an emblem.

What changed between August of 1950 and March of 1951 is unknown, but when Members of the Legislature were provided with a sneak peak of the 1952 license plates, the Totem had been replaced with an outline of a Maple Leaf!

The Vancouver Province newspaper quickly printed an editorial expressing its disappointment. After many years of asking the provincial government to put some form of emblem on license plates the newspaper had hoped that the emblem would “be more than the black maple leaf now proposed ... [and that] a colorful B.C. totem pole would be a better highway ambassador when our cars on traveling in far places.”

While it is not known what had served as the inspiration for placing the Maple Leaf on the plates, the notion that provincial license plates should indicate “CANADA” in order to help orient Americans as to where the driver resided had been floating around for years.

What happened next is unknown and probably lost to time, but two months later (May of 1951) it was being reported that “some thousands of the 1952 plates have already been made”, and by September of 1951 it was formally confirmed that the design of these plates had been changed to include a totem pole ... inside the maple leaf emblem!

This emblem, likely the result of bureaucratic decision-making by committee, had the result of detracting from both the Maple Leaf and the Thunderbird as they each became lost within the other.

The design was criticized almost immediately after its unveiling. The Province newspaper acknowledged the shortcomings of the design and editorialised that “the totem pole should look like a totem pole” while the Victoria Daily Colonist questioned the relevance of totem poles to contemporary British Columbia (“How many genuine Indian carvings are left . . . to see?”) and the merits of the design (“It isn’t simple enough to be really striking”).

The Totem-Land Society was even less forgiving, proclaiming “it doesn’t look like anything. The totem is not even a copy of an original and is practically obliterated on the maple leaf background.  All that was needed was a bright totem pole and the word “Totem-Land” or better still, “Land of the Totem” . . . we are making a mess of a colourful and interesting publicity idea for B.C.”

It also soon came to light that the Totem emblem had been copyrighted to the Vancouver Board of Trade and its use by businesses, groups or individuals in promotional or advertising material required the submission of a $35 application ($415 in 2023 dollars) to the Board of Trade for its consideration.

This raised the hackles of many motorists who, in an era when the use of license plates for promotional purposes (whether civic or otherwise) was still contested ground, objected to having their cars turned into mobile billboards for the Vancouver Board of Trade.

To obscure the emblem raised the risk of citation by the police for defacing the license plates, while the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) did not offer any alternative options for drivers who objected to the design.

On March 14, 1952 - two weeks into the new vehicle registration year - the major Vancouver newspapers reported that “for the first time in Canadian parliamentary history, an Indian legislator has delivered an address in his native tongue from the floor of a provincial legislature.”

Frank Calder (shown at right) had been elected to the Legislature in 1949 as the Member for Atlin as part of the (then) Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Party.

After speaking for what was reported to be three minutes in “Nishga” (now spelled Nishga'a), Calder repeated his comments in English “for the benefit of those who are new in my country.”  

The topic that Calder had chosen to speak on was license plates(!) and was summarised by the press as follows:

He advised the [Coalition] government to discard the insignia of a totem pole on the automobile license plates, as it was too small and insignificant to attract attention, and replace it with the legend “totem-land.” This, he thought, would “have the magic touch” compelling attention.

He said totems should be left on the reserves and not be removed to public parks; but if they were to be erected there, and for those already so displayed, native Indians should be secured to explain them to visitors.

Calder went on to serve over 20 years in the Legislature for three different political parties (CCF, NDP and Social Credit) and is most famous for the 1973 Supreme Court of Canada decision that bears his name (Calder v British Columbia) and established that Aboriginal title exists in modern Canadian law. To read more about Frank Calder, Click here!

The Totem also landed at a time when car culture was firmly taking root across North America and governments were just beginning to understand the symbolic significance of “signscapes”; being the use of signage and other symbols on, and along the side of roads aimed at drivers to produce “larger meanings and representations about place, culture and identity.”

License plates were a important component of this as they were “moving signs” whose imagery and slogans could influence “people’s sense of place – [and] how they conceptualize themselves as being geographically situated.”

In the coming years, governments across Canada and the United States would increasingly use the design of their license plates to try and script identities.  Yet, according to Jon Leib (see his “Identity, Banal Nationalism, Contestation, and North American License Plates”) this scripting was not always a top-down process, as individuals contested official representations being imposed by the state;

... controversy over the designs of license plates reinforces the contention that “even the most banal forms of nationalism clearly have the potential to become foci of heated identity battles if a perceived sense of threat emerges.”

While the use of the Totem was clearly pursued in support of an economic agenda and not a desire for meaningful reconciliation, its use nevertheless engendered “a perceived sense of threat” amongst some.

Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Harold Weir, confessed that “I realize it's a frightful heresy to say so, but I think ... totem poles are so unspeakably hideous that I would gladly walk a mile to avoid one ... We plaster them all over stationery and even our motor license plates ... but to the great majority of British Columbians these objects are nightmares of grotesque shapes and crude colorings ...”

In Victoria, David Brock was writing in the Daily Times that the Totem is evidence ... [of] the Motor-Vehicles Branch [compelling] you, whether you like it or not, to drive round advertising your fake eagle-ism. If you refuse to turn your car into a billboard ... of the Eagle clan, then it becomes illegal for you to drive. Which is not only tyranny, but a very nasty pun, what with ill eagle and illegal and all.

The pages of the Letters to the Editor also carried the opinions of residents, some of them bigoted, such as Gladys Shrapnel of Victoria who complained that “motorists must now carry the effigy of a heathen idol on their motor cars whether they are heathens or not.”

In the Vancouver Sun, an equally bigoted writer using only the initials K.B.F. complained there are enough Americans who think that Granville Street has nothing but Indians on it now without calling our province Totemland or putting totem poles on the plates ... Those who really want to carry a B.C. slogan or emblem on their cars could be given appropriate window stickers through gas stations or tourist information places”.

Sylvia, also writing in the Sun, stated that while I have only friendly feelings for our native B.C. Indians and regard the totem as an interesting specimen of primitive and barbaric art, I can't bring myself to regard it as a suitable emblem for our province ... I don't like it on the motor license plates ...”

Few, however, were as put out by the design as E.A. Simmons, a local Funeral Director (shown at left), who proceeded to wage a one-man crusade against totem poles through the Letter to the Editor pages of the Vancouver Sun and Province.

Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Simmons proclaimed the Totem design to be a “Jumbled Freak” and an embarrassment when traveling outside of the province;

This mess of tin failed to create any degree of impression on my [fellow guests] as to its worth-whileness and my explanation of the historic background and significance of the two emblems, although interesting to my listeners, could not be deciphered by them in that ill-conceived freak of metal.

Simmons lamented that “years ago, we used the excellent and appealing slogan 'Canada's Evergreen Playground.' I am bold enough to suggest that we should re-adopt this as our provincial slogan and carry it as an advertising medium on our license plates.” We shall hear more from Simmons below ...


A more mundane challenge associated with the Totem was administrative and accommodating the issuance of between 250,000 to 350,000 license plates over five years with space for only five characters (due to the space taken by the Totem).

The solution that the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) came up with, the use of letters and numbers as had occurred between 1941 and 1948, while not novel, was poorly executed.

Whereas the use of letters in the 1940s made some intuitive sense, being issued alphabetically and always in the same location on the plates, the use of letters on the Totem plates appeared random and ad hoc and did not always lend themselves to quick memorization by the public or law enforcement.

That said, with the benefit of access to the Distribution List used by the MVB some semblance of order can be discerned in the use of letters on the Totems.  One of the easiest way to understand how these plates were issued is to think of it as being three (3) distinct blocs of between 50,000 to 100,000 plates that were provided to different parts of the province based upon a certain urban hierarchy.

What can be considered as the first bloc of 100,000 plates were the traditional all-numeric plates displaying the “00-000” format. These were issued to the majority of MVB offices across the province, most of which were in the smaller urban/rural areas - with the exception of Victoria which retained it status as the location from which the first bloc of plates (and, most importantly, No. 1) were issued:

1st Bloc - "00-000" format

: 1 TO 40-000

: 40-001 TO 43-700
43,701 TO 44,050
Issuing Statistics
1 to 40-000
40-001 to 43-700
43-701 to 44-050
44-051 to 44-100
44-101 to 44-250
Burns Lake:
44-251 to 45-150
45-151 to 45-400
45-401 to 48-700
48-701 to 51-900
51-901 to 53-200
53-201 to 57-500
57-501 to 58-800
58-801 to 59-550
59-551 to 59-650
Grand Forks:
59-651 to 60-350
60-351 to 60-700
60-701 to 60-950
60-951 to 65-950
65-951 to 66-350
66-351 to 66-650
66-651 to 67-150
67-151 to 73-650
New Denver:
73-651 to 74-000
74-001 to 74-200
74-201 to 75-600
75-601 to 79-550
79-551 to 80-100
Pouce Coupe:
80-101 to 82-100
Powell River:
82-101 to 83-700
Prince George:
83-701 to 86-300
Prince Ruppert:
86-301 to 88-100
88-101 to 89-300
89-301 to 90-300
90-301 to 90-950
90-951 to 91-950
Salmon Arm:
91-951 to 93-550
93-551 to 94-350
94-351 to 98-500
98-501 to 99-000
99-001 to 99-350
Williams Lake:
99-351 to 99-999
44-051 TO 44-100
44-101 TO 44-250
44-251 TO 45-150
45-151 TO 45-400
Bill Hobbis Collection
COURTENAY: 45-401 TO 48-700

Brad Eckersley Collection
CRANBROOK: 48-701 TO 51-900

: 51-901 TO 53-200

DUNCAN: 53-201 TO 57-500

FERNIE: 57-501 TO 58-800
Brad Eckersley Collection
GOLDEN: 58-801 TO 59-550
59-551 TO 59-650
60-351 TO 60-700
60-701 TO 60-950
65-951 TO 66-350
66-351 TO 66-650
Brad Eckersley Collection
MERRITT: 66-651 TO 67-150
73-651 TO 74-000
74-001 TO 74-200
Bill Hobbis Collection
OLIVER: 74-201 TO 75-600
Bill Hobbis Collection
PENTICTON: 75-601 TO 79-550
Ron Garay Collection
SUMMERLAND: 79-551 TO 80-100

POUCE COUPE: 80-101 TO 82-100

POWELL RIVER: 82-101 TO 83-700

PRINCE GEORGE: 83-701 TO 86-300
Don McNeill Collection
PRINCE RUPERT: 86-301 TO 88-100
88-101 TO 89-300
89-301 TO 90-300

REVELSTOKE: 90-301 TO 90-950

: 90-951 TO 91-950
91-951 TO 93-550

SMITHERS: 93-551 TO 94-350
Brad Eckersley Collection
VERNON: 94-351 TO 98-500

ARMSTRONG: 98-501 TO 99-000
99-001 TO 99-350
99-351 TO 99-999

The second bloc of approximately 83,992 plates displayed a single letter prefix - i.e. "A0-000" - and were issued exclusively to the City of Vancouver, which was and remains the largest city in the Province.
2nd Bloc - "A0-000" format
Bill Hobbis Collection
Issuing Statistics
A-1 to A9-999
E-1 to E9-999
H-1 to H9-999
J-1 to J9-999
K-1 to K9-999
P-1 to P9-999
R-1 to R9-999
S-1 to S9-999
T-1 to T4-000
Bill Hobbis Collection
Bill Hobbis Collection

Ron Garay Collection

The third bloc of approximately 50,051 plates incorporated a single letter as the second character - i.e. "0A-000" - and were issued to eleven mid level urban areas or regional centres of the province such as New Westminster and Kamloops, etc ...
3rd Bloc - "0A-000" format
Bill Hobbis Collection
Issuing Statistics
New Westminster:
1A-1 to 9A-999
1E-1 to 9E-999
1H-1 to 2H-999
3H-1 to 6H-999
7H-1 to 8H-999
1J-1 to 6J-999
1K-1 to 4K-500
1P-1 to 4P-999
1R-1 to 4R-999
1S-1 to 3S-600
3S-601 to 3S-800
3S-801 to 3S-999
1T-1 to 4T-999

First plate issued in New Westminster - 1A-1.

A number of single letter prefix plates were retained at the Victoria Stock Room for issuance later in the year to other offices on an as-needs basis. While available records only make reference to the "T" and "U" prefixes, the presence of a "W" prefix with the date stamp and totem emblem is thought to signify that additional plates were required prior to the end of the 1952 issuing year.
1952 Over-run
Pierre Delacote Collection
Issuing Statistics
Stock Room:
T-4001 to T9-999
U-1 to U9-999
For those familiar with our National Parks page, red borders on a plate were used to allow local residents free access to Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks. Unfortunately, as this series of "T" plates is over-run, we don't know if it was issued in Field or Golden and if the red borders are related to the Parks. Nevertheless ...

Over-run Variations
Given the placement of a letter as the first character on the following plates, it is not unreasonable to think that these might have been over-run plates issued in 1952, especially the "W" prefix which also displays the embossed Totem on the base similar to the "T" & "U" prefix plates shown above. It also seems logical that once the "T" & "U" prefix were exhausted that the MVB would start issuing plates with a "W" and possibly followed be a "Y" prefix. What is somewhat odd, however, is the disappearance of the dash followed by the later disappearance of the Totem on higher numbered "W" prefix plates. It will be interesting to see if all of the "Y" prefix plates do not have the embossed Totem as we add more photos to this section.

In attempting to explain this new system to motorists, the press explained how Victoria and Vancouver would be given plates displaying A, E, H, J, K, P, R, S, T and U, but that:

  • the letter 'B' was not being used as it too closely resembled the number 8;
  • the letter 'C' was being used for Commercial vehicle plates;
  • the letter 'D' was being used on Demonstrator plates;
  • the letter 'I' was not being used as it too closely resembled the number 1; and
  • the letter 'Q' was not being used as it too closely resembled zero.

The writer concluded by asking; “Confusing, isn't it?”

In Vancouver, the travails of a MVB clerk learning the new system (a temporary hire for the end of year rush) made the local papers after mistakenly issuing Truck plates (“C” prefix) to passenger vehicle owners. An honest mistake, right?

Those letters they've mixed with the figures on B.C.'s 1952 license plates were the cause of a lunchtime jam-up and some frayed tempers at the B.C. Motor Vehicle Bureau, Monday.

The letters which precede the figures on the new five-year Aluminum plates, besides confusing a few of the customers, threw one of the temporary clerks.

Confronted by a mob of lunchtime license plate seekers and with only four of the seven wickets open to handle the rush, one of the clerks became excited and started issuing plates with the C prefix to passenger car operators ...

Both clerks and customers find [this system] a bit of a headache. But then, what's a headache when a man has five years to get over it?

More on this below ...

Issuing Statistics
Initial Series:
100,001 to 335,000
Oakalla Prison
90 mm x 140 mm

Comments: Keeping track of the numbers on tabs is not easy. Highest known is 349,016. Tabs that do not display the Maple Leaf were used on Commercial plates.

* Estimate / Unconfirmed
Ron Garay Collection
It is always important to look at these serials as you might have a low number, such as the tab shown at left, which is the 81st issued.
Information regarding the distribution of tabs and which numbers were issued from which particular Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) can be found on our Registration Data page: Click here!

In what would prove to be the downfall of the Totem base, within weeks of the 1953 renewal tabs being issued, police reported “a flurry of thefts” and were warning motorists to have the tabs firmly fastened to their license plates.

Police reminded motorists the same thing had happened in 1951 (and, as we know, in 1919, 1921 & 1922 as well) and that “the crooks won't take the time to remove them if they have been bolted on and the end of the bolts cinched over but if they see a set tied on with string - well, it's easier than paying for them.” The cost to replace a lost or stolen tab was $2.00.

Problematic, of course, was that by riveting the 1953 tabs to the license plate would make the change-over of tabs in 1954 very difficult without some form of damage being sustained by the Aluminum base plate, which was already proving flimsy.

In one amusing story shortly after these warnings, an irate citizen stormed into the MVB office to complain that one of the two 1953 tabs he had bought the day before had already been stolen. A patient official accompanied the complainant outside, took a look at the car, and gently pointed out that both plates were firmly bolted together on the rear bracket.

Directors of the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) soon passed a resolution calling ont he provincial government to “look for a more suitable type of license plate than the present 1953 tabs ... [as[ the tabs can be stolen too easily”.

Two weeks later, the provincial government hinted that it would be abandoning the tab renewal system and returning to the issuance of new license plates each year.

The reason given was the difficulty of trying to match the renewal tab affixed to a license plate as being the proper one that was issued by the Motor Vehicle Branch (MVB) for that vehicle.

Compounding matters was the revelation that “there is no record kept of serial numbers of tabs to motorists ... [allowing] an unscrupulous individual to steal a tab from a car, place it on his own vehicle and make it difficult to prove a crime ... Also, tiny numbers on the tabs can't seen without closeup inspection.”

While it was reported that Commercial vehicles would return to an annual license plate (sans tabs) in 1954, this was not going to be possible for passenger vehicles as the 1954 tabs were already being made at the Oakalla Plate Shop.

The formal announcement came in August of 1953 and reconfirmed everything that had been reported five months earlier; “the tabs provided inadequate identification, and the aluminum plates have not stood up.”

The Attorney-General, Robert Bonner, was quoted as saying “by returning to steel plates and abandoning the tab system we can give the motorist better service at less cost.”

Whether by design or coincidence, the Alberta Government announced the very next day that it too was abandoning its experiment with permanent license plates and returning to a system in which new plate would be issued each year.

Much like British Columbia, the Alberta plates suffered from a theft-friendly tab with miniscule identification numbers that made confirming the tab matched the base plate almost impossible.

Two months later, the first in a series of classified ads appears in the Victoria press notifying anyone who might have a need for scrap aluminum that the MVB had approximately 4,500 pounds to dispose of located “as is and where is” at its Menzies Street office:

Various classified ads that appeared between October of 1953 and March of 1954 for approximately 4,500 pounds of scrap aluminum license plates.

It was further announced that use of the Totem emblem as well as letters in the serial number was unlikely to be continued and that no decision had been made about the introduction of a slogan such as “Evergreen Playground” or “Dogwood Land”.

Apparently, the use of letters, at least the way they were utilised on the Totem base, was found “to complicate filing systems, and law officers find identification difficult under some circumstances.”

The provincial election of June 1952 had also brought to power the Social Credit Party under W.A.C. Bennett, which had little representation in the Vancouver area or from the Vancouver business community and likely felt little allegiance to the Totem design.

Predictably, the Vancouver business community, supported by the editorial pages of the major daily newspapers rolled into action at this news. The Victoria Times wondered why a slogan such as “The Land of Parks” or something similar could not be used to “draw attention to the attraction of this part of Canada to the tourist?”

In March of 1954, Harry Duker traveled to Victoria in order to lobby the provincial government in the hope that it would retain some form of Totem branding on the 1955 license plates, which were to be manufactured beginning the following month.

Duker's proposed compromise was the inclusion of a “Totemland” slogan to be placed along the top of the new plates.  In a blast from the past, the Victoria Junior Chamber of Commerce (JCC) revived its work from the late 1920s and called for a license plate design that included an insignia promoting the province such as “Sportsman's Paradise” or “Home of the Totem.” Regarding the current Totem design, the declared it to “indecipherable and unintelligible”. (January 1953).

Working against Duker and the JCC was a broader initiative to standardize license plate design across North America in order to facilitate car design and the specifications needed for mounting the plates. This was going to result in a mandatory 6 inch x 12 inch plate size, which was 2 inches shorter than the 1952 base and left little space for a stamped emblem. To read more about this standardization of plates, see the next page; 1955-63.

The usual suspects came out to oppose the continuance of the Totem emblem, including Harold Weir, who reminded his readers that he “would feel silly as all get-out in proclaiming to the world at large that I hailed from 'Totemland' ... When I have to carry that bit of foolery around on my car I'll taker to wearing ruffles on my underpants.”

The Victoria Colonist headlined an article “Totemland Slogan Scored as Fraud Against Tourists” on the basis that “whatever it may have been in the past, B.C. certainly is not a totemland today” and inducing tourists to come to the province to see something that doesn't exist was simply misleading advertising.

On April 26, 1954, the government officially nixed the inclusion of any slogan on the 1955 license plates, including “Totemland”, “Industry Moves West” and “Land of Beauty”.

In a celebratory mood, E.A. Simmons wrote a letter to the Editors of both the Sun and Province newspapers commending the provincial government for “its wisdom” in rejecting the “Totemland” slogan. He further suggested that;

Now that the totem pole has been eliminated from our license plates it would be an opportune time for our provincial and civic publicity bureaus to follow the precedent and discontinue for good the use of this hideous and grotesque design which has no understanding or appeal beyond our local boundaries.

A minor dissent was registered by the Canadian Daughters' League (CDL) who objected to the removal of the Maple Leaf emblem from the license plates.

As can be seen in the issuing statistics for the 3rd bloc of plates, not all letters were initially manufactured, with only 4,000 sets of plates where the second character was an 'S' being issued to the Kootenay communities of Nelson, Salmo and Castlegar. The Branch subsequently produced plates with these remaining combinations in order to meet demand and, based upon the absence of the "Totem" or a year, it is estimated that these were issued sometime between 1953 & 1954.
Additional Over-run
Ron Garay Collection
Issuing Statistics
9H-1 to 9H-999
7J-1 to 9J-999
4K-501 to 9K-999
5P-1 to 9P-999
5R-1 to 9R-999
4S-1 to 9S-999
5T-1 to 9T-999

Issuing Statistics
Initial Series:
100,001 to 360,000
Oakalla Prison
90 mm x 140 mm


* Estimate / Unconfirmed

Although the MVB had retained approximately 15,000 plates for future use in the Stock Room in Victoria as part of the 1952 issuance, this proved insufficient to meet the need for new registrations throughout 1953 and 1954 and a new series of approximately 60,000 plates incorporating a single-letter suffix (i.e. 0-000A) were manufactured.

Unfortunately, the available MVB records for 1953 and 1954 only provide details on the serial numbers that appeared on the renewal tabs and not the number of additional plates that were manufactured to accommodate the need for new license plates.

Nevertheless, it is possible to identify these plates through the absence of the Totem emblem on the base plate - which has been left blank.

1953 - 1954 Base Plates
Ron Garay Collection
Ron Garay Collection
Ron Garay Collection
Interestingly, the letter "D" has now made an appearance, with the series ending in the "K" range. If you have a plate with a letter combination not shown here, it is also possible that you might be looking at Commercial (C), Farm (F) or Dealer (D) plate.


As BC was scrapping its latest attempt at permanent license plates, Missouri was pioneering a solution to the problem of an efficient renewal system that also combatted theft; the use of plastic registration decals to be stuck directly to a licence plate:
Missouri would be followed by California - a state to which British Columbia would often look for inspiration - Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington by 1959. In Canada, the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick and PEI would be the first to use decals. To read more about these innovations, see our page on Decals by; Clicking Here!

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