An Ontario man who fled Afghanistan amid the threat of a militant takeover says his life was endangered multiple times because of a license plate resembling the word ISIS that he never asked for and that the province refused to change until he was nearly killed.
Nouman, 26, came to Canada as a refugee with his mother and brother just over a decade ago. His father had died a few years earlier, and life for a single mother in Kabul wasn’t safe at the time.
Canada, they hoped, would give them safety and “peace of mind.” But a set of license plates he wound up with last year would put him right back in danger again. CBC News is identifying the 29-year-old by his first name only over concerns for his safety.
When Nouman bought his first motorcycle from a dealership last summer, he didn’t pay much attention to the fact that it bore the plates: 1S1S6.
But after multiple death threats and accusations that he was a supporter of the terror group, Nouman asked the provincial service provider Service Ontario to change his plates. Instead of issuing him new ones, he says he was brushed off and left vulnerable to being targeted again.
“Not only has my life been threatened at that point but I’m also mocked for that very same thing by a government worker,” he said.
“It puts you in a really powerless place.”
‘We know you’re a supporter’
It’s not the first time the province has fallen under scrutiny for not screening out potentially offensive plates. In 2018 and 2019, CBC Toronto reported on vanity plates that appeared to pass under the radar despite having graphic meanings in a variety of languages including Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu.
But this particular license plate should have raised obvious flags given ISIS is a well-known designated terror group in Canada that’s made headlines for the atrocities it has committed, says one sociology professor.
Momin Rahman, a professor at Trent University who studies racism and Islamophobia, says the plates Nouman flagged would have been “obviously stigmatizing” for him and that the province should have known better.
Just two months after buying the bike, Nouman says someone accosted him outside Toronto Metropolitan University asking what his license plate was supposed to mean and yelling slurs at him. Nouman dismissed it as one-off. Winter was around the corner and he’d be putting his bike away soon anyway.
But this past spring, the threats began again. In May, he says, three men pushed him around outside the school, threatened him and said, “We know you’re a supporter.”
After that, Nouman says he filed a police report and went to a Service Ontario location in Etobicoke to ask for the plates to be replaced. He says the attendant dismissed his concerns and said he would be charged $59 for the change.
Nouman refused, saying the plate should have never been put into circulation given how closely it resembled the word ISIS. After all, the province prohibits license plates “determined to be objectionable” for a host of reasons, including: those with words that are sexual in nature, vulgar, abusive, derogatory, referencing religion, promoting violence, containing political opinions or expressing hate against a person or group.
“Yes, I could pay this amount to avoid this kind of thing but at the same time Service Ontario has a responsibility to provide me with a set of plates that doesn’t get me killed, right?” he said.
A near-death experience
On June 10, Nouman says he was accosted again by a different group of men outside the convenience store where he worked. This time, he says, he made up his mind to go to a government officer the very next day to make his case again.
He almost didn’t make it.
On his way to a Service Ontario office in Mississauga, Nouman says a man in a gray or silver-colored car nearly ran him off the road on Dundas Street. Fortunately, Nouman swerved into an empty lane just in time and caught up with the car at a red light where he was able to write down the license plate to file another a police report.
While there’s no way of knowing for sure, he believes the incident was just one of the many motivated by his license plate. Peel Regional Police confirmed to CBC News that Nouman did file a report, but would not confirm the date or say whether they are investigating.
“This was just lucky on so many levels because the left lane was open, because I was able to see this person in time, react in time, otherwise I would probably not have been here to tell you this story,” he said.
Finally, that day, he says a Service Ontario attendant changed his plates at no cost, apologizing to him for what he’d been through.
Institutions need to be more ‘responsive’: professor
Meanwhile, Rahman says with Canada’s population growing diverse, public institutions need to have cultural awareness and be more “responsive” to the populations they serve.
“We know in Canada that people who are perceived to be or are Muslim can be targeted for violence like [what] happened in London. It’s happened in Quebec City,” he said.
“And so that’s it’s a bit shocking to find out that there wasn’t an immediate understanding of that and that the driver and the family could be made targets by that kind of the license plate.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Office of the Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery apologized for Nouman’s experience, adding his plates were ultimately replaced without charge.
“We apologize to this individual for not meeting our standard of service and are working to ensure this situation does not happen again,” said the statement.
The ministry says it aims to be “as holistic and detailed as possible” when reviewing plates to ensure they are not objectionable. But since the process is a manual one, it says there are times when a particular combination of letters and numbers is missed.
The ministry also says its public employees complete mandatory training to support cultural sensitivity.
Meanwhile, Nouman says he was told the original plates would be destroyed. He’s also since sold his bike. But he says he wants assurances no one else will be given plates that could put them at risk.
Overall, he says the entire experience left him feeling “let down.”
“If they spell something dangerous like that and they’re on the road, that’s a definite threat.”