Automobile Folklore (Why Crossing Parking Lots Can Be Fun)

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Ontario Licence Plate

Ontario Licence Plate

Whenever I have to cross of these gigantic North American parking lots, I slow down. First, I have to be careful because drivers check for other cars when backing out but they tend to forget there are pedestrians navigating the lot as well.

But mostly, I slow down because I like to look at cars.

I don’t care about makes or models—they are all the same to me—but I love the way drivers customize their ride.

So I’m car watching the same way I would be people watching if I was sitting at the terrace of a busy café somewhere in Europe. Instead of checking out people’s shoes, I look at bumpers and plates.

Gotta adapt.

In North America, cars become part of people’s identity and some drivers like to make a statement, much like French love to hang geraniums in pots on the banister of their one-foot-wide balconies. After all, you can do everything in your car: go to work, eat, and yes, have sex. Or so I’ve heard anyway. I mean, I wouldn’t eat in a car.

One of the first things I noted when I moved to Canada were the licence plates. In France, they show a boring series of number and letters, the last two numbers being the numéro de département. In Canada, each province/territory issue plates that bore a slogan and unique design. For instance, in Ontario, plates are blue on reflective white with screened crown separator and say “Yours to Discover”. In Ottawa, we often see vehicles from “Je me souviens” Quebec, “Friendly” Manitoba, New York State, Florida or Maine, but I always find it interesting to spot “rare” plates like PEI or the very cool bear-shaped design from the Northwest Territories.

Instead of the traditional sequential alphanumeric combinations, some drivers pay extra for “vanity plates” personalized with a custom serial. The result can be puzzling or funny: yesterday I saw “LAWPROF”, I also remember “TAX FREE” and “BECOOL”. Licence plates also give insight into the professional background of the owner: a red one is a diplomatic car (common in Ottawa, very often badly parked), they are plates for war veterans, armed forces, senators, members of parliament, etc.

Plates are often mounted by the dealerships, in which case they have their address or some kind of ad on the frame, so you can tell that such or such car has a license plate from Ontario but it’s not from Ottawa as the dealership is on one of Toronto’s main highways—the devil is in the detail.

Bumper stickers are also very popular and are part of the driver’s identity, like this Tea Party member in the US or this hippie driver. There is an entire stickers and symbols subculture that took me years to decipher. Start with the easy. The most common stickers are the ubiquitous “stick family” members on the back window, each character symbolizing a family member and their role or passion (daddy with computer, mommy with a book, etc.). There are variants on the theme, such as the “zombie family”, “robot family”, etc. The trend even sparked a backlash.

Then you have the fish that some Christians sport at the back of the car, while secular individuals may opt for the Darwin fish. Magnetic awareness or support ribbons are also popular, often with the “support our troops” message but also in support of various conditions or targeted individuals.

A look at the bumper is enough for a basic personality study. There is a guy in Ottawa who drives around in a red car covered in Sens stickers. Maple Leaf fans can also be spotted, there is a blue leaf on their licence plates. There are the religious zealots who display ugly and often graphic “abortion is murder” messages, the travelers who have “Mile 0” decals along with road trip souvenir stickers, and let’s not forget the outdoorsy folks who drive around with a canoe mounted on their vehicle (do you really need to take your canoe to go grocery shopping?).

The driver’s cultural background can also show through small details. Asians, for instance, often have the 福 character hanging on the rear-view mirror, or other red ornaments. Believers can have hanging lockets with Surahs, prayer beads, medals of saints, plastic Jesus, crucifix, crosses…

As for our car, well, other than for Mark’s mess, it’s very ordinary. We only have a small dolphin hanging from the rearview mirror, and I don’t even remember how it got here!


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Hi Zhu,

    The western slogans are in order: “Beautiful British Colulmbia”, “Wildrose Country”, “Land of Living Skies” and “Friendly Manitoba”. I think the NWT bear is cool too. Manitoba and North Dakota have nice picures on their plates.

    In Saskatchewan the most common mirror decorations are dreamcatchers. They are Cree symbols which feature a circle with feathers around it. It is supposed to keep away evil spirits.

    It is always good to have the proper tires on your car:

    • Dream catchers are awesome. We have these in Ontario too and I love the symbolism and the objects themselves. I think Sask. has the coolest motto!

  2. I forgot our most famous western bumper sticker from the Trudeau years “Let The Eastern Bastards Freeze In The Cold”. But we are friends now and want you to buy our oil.

  3. I like to look at the plates too, especially how many people have the “Je Me Souviens” plates like me. I get all excited when i see U.S. states plates here, especially Maryland plates. We actually saw one last weekend !
    I have never heard and seen the Darwin fish on plates.

  4. Martin Penwald on

    French plate have change a couples of years ago. Now they are on the AA-123-AA format (2 letters, 3 number, 2 letters), white background and black letters, on the left side there is a small blue rectangle with the country identification, and on the right there is a spot to show a departement number : when they plan to change that, it was thought that this right thing was free, but some idiots insist to have the departement number mandatory. But contrarily to before, where the departement number had to be the number of owner residency departement, now it is just mandatory to have a departement number, but whatever you want. My sister-in-law lose a plate, so the departement in the front and in the back are not the same.

    I don’t like when plate have 4 or more characters without space, it is ugly. Plates in Ontario (recent ones, not the prehistoric one you show on the picture here) have even 4 letters (and a space plus 3 numbers), it is difficult to read. The new New York plates have a nice yellow background, but same problem, there is 4 characters a space and 3 numbers, it is ugly. Curious ones are from Vermont, with a green background and white characters.
    In Alberta, they have decided to change the plates (from white background/red characters to fancy-shitty background/dark characters — I don’t like it), but I haven’t noticed some yet.

    • For some reason, in my mind, yellow plates = taxi. I always think NY plates are taxis!

      I heard about the change in France, but my parents don’t have a car and I didn’t pay attention last time. I can see the dear régionalistes insisting to have their beloved Corse, Bretagne or Pays Basque on their plates. Must be a disproportionate number of them!

      You have a point about plates being hard to read. But do you often need to read them? I mean, I don’t think much about them most of the time.

  5. HI Zhu,

    The Eastern Bastards bumper sticker was a result of Pierre Trudeau’s Natioal Energy Policy of 1980. The program had three main goals: increase the federal share of energy revenues, boost Canadian ownership in the oil industry, and make Canada self-sufficient as an oil producer. Some Albertans didn’t like it and American oil companies accused Trudeau of socialist nationalization with his formation of Petro-Canada. Other than a few red-necks, not many people actually had this sticker, although it did make headlines. With “Trudeaumania” back then, most people liked Trudeau and had nothing against Easterners. I met Trudeau in 1972 and worked on his campaign that year. He truly did have charisma.

  6. HI Zhu,

    Charisma is not important this year because most people are going to vote ABC. I don’t like our “first past the post” electoral system where a party can get only a minority of votes and still form a majority government. I think that we should have two-round runoff voting like in France. Also, we should abolish the horrible undemocratic Senate. Useless parasites. Talk about a zero value added institution.

    I hope that you had a good weekend. It hit 22 C here on Saturday. I even found a few garage sales.

    I am look forward to more great shots of Ottawa and the farm. I especially like the people shots as I think people are the most interesting animals to watch.

    • It was cold on Saturday (upcoming weather rant!) but today, Sunday, was nice. As in “I wore sandals” nice. Finally! Hopefully it lasts.

      I find the voting system very confusing in both Canada and the US. Which party do you think has the best chances this year?

  7. Hi Zhu,

    A lot can happen between now and October 19 but right now I think that it is too close to call. The polls show the Liberals and Conservatives tied at 32 % and the NDP at 22 %. In the 2011 election the Conservatives had 39.62 %, the NDP had 30.63 % and the Liberals had 18.91 %. Even though 60.38 % of Canadians did not vote Conservative, they still formed a majority government.

    If we had had a runoff system like France, a second vote would have been held and the Liberal voters, knowing that they were losing, could have voted for the NDP. Ideologically, the Liberals and NDP are closer. The NDP are often called “Liberals in a Hurry” so Liberal voters would not have a hard time voting NDP. With our “first past the post” system there is no second vote and the Liberals or the NDP wind up splitting the vote letting the Conservatives in even though they are a minority.

    Another problem with our system is that it is not truly democratic because only 61.1 % of people voted in the last election. Belgium and Australia have a turnout of around 95 % because they have a mandatory voting system. The lower classes and the poor in Canada typically have a much lower voter turnout. The lowest per capita income regions had a turnout as low as 45%. Only one in four people under 25 bother to vote. If these people don’t re-engage the system it will be bad news for our democratic institutions.

    It is interesting that Justin Trudeau, in last years leadership campaign, was pondering mandatory voting and preferential ballots where a voter’s secondary and subsequent choices are considered until a candidate recieves more than 50% of the vote. The Liberals are on the right track on these issues.

    The wildcard in this years election will be the NDP voter. With a close race between the Conservatives and Liberals, if the NDP voters think that they don’t have a hope of winning they may vote strategically for the Liberals. So it all could all come down to the NDPs chances of winning come this fall.

    Sometimes it can make your head hurt but at least our election campaigns are mercifully short compared to the never ending nightmare of American election campaigns. President Obama’s second inauguration finished a long electoral cyde that began almost two years before in 2011. Their campaigns are a way too long, expensive and fatiguing. It is a tribute to the stamina of Americans that they are not all wearing ear plugs after 6 months of this never ending assualt on their senses.

    • Thank you for sharing your insights! I don’t even know who I will be voting for. I know who I won’t be voting for, i.e. the Conservative, so that’s a start already. I was surprised to see how short campaigns are in Canada… short but intense. And so many signs everywhere! I can’t imagine French putting campaign signs on their lawns, there would be a war between neighbours because people feel very strong about their party.

  8. I found a George Carlin sticker on one of the photographs you had linked, 🙂

    I am surprised, I knew people in India loved these stickers and number plates (Although I got mad when I saw my dealer’s ad on the rear glass, so I made him take it off and the after glu as well) However I am really surprised that it’s a thing in Canada.

    • French don’t like bumper stickers as much, but most don’t care about their cars either. I had no idea these were popular in India!

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