Were you at the Raptors’ victory parade in June 2019?

I was.

That morning, I traveled downtown by TTC with my children and my parents. We decided not to go to Nathan Phillips Square in at the end of the route, figuring the crowds would be largest there (and we were correct).

Instead, we found a spot outside Union Station at the intersection of York Street, Front Street and University Avenue (it’s a five-way intersection). On the southwest corner, there’s a restaurant with a concrete retaining wall around its garden. We settled on its flat top and got comfortable.

Good thing, too. It was a looooooooong wait.

A sports thirst like no other

Toronto is a sports-mad city. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a championship since the ’60s. Until 2019, the Raptors, formed in 1995, had never made it past the second round. And, while our other sports teams like the Blue Jays have been blessed with wins over the years, we wanted more.


So, when the Raptors triumphed over the Golden State Warriors, the atmosphere was electric. People drove and ran through our neighbourhood honking their horns and cheering. Local bars cleaned up.

The crowds that showed up to the parade were so large that the open-topped buses carrying the team had trouble advancing through the packed streets. The police presence wasn’t adequate enough to keep bystanders back.

Overwhelmed cell towers failed. For several hours, I couldn’t see my social media feeds send or receive texts.

As this video opens, we’re somewhere below the tree cluster in the bottom left.

By the time we spotted Kawaii and the trophy, we’d been waiting for five hours. By that point, my family had been pressed against the retaining wall by the sheer crush of people. Those moving through the crowd had to inch past us. It was a literal sea of humanity.

Media estimates claimed 1 million people attended. That’s over a third of Toronto’s population.

Nothing describes what it was like to cheer with a million people that afternoon. And as I stood there, in the presence of what felt like the entire world, I thought:

“If everyone here is ready to celebrate Toronto in sports, will they be interested in celebrating it in other forms? What if everyone here is a future reader of my book?”

Diversity everywhere you look

If you told me that there was someone in that crowd from every country in the world, I’d believe you.

Basketball is a dynamic, exciting game that attracts a wide international fan base. During the Raptors’ championship run, the players talked about how inspiring it was to know that a whole country, not just the city, was cheering for them.

On that stifling afternoon, people moved around us in a constant flow from all walks of life: young and old, families and groups of friends. After the pandemic and so much social isolation, it’s the kind of memory that feels like a fever dream.

But standing among everyone celebrating, Toronto’s future was obvious: It’s young, passionate and diverse.

Equally obviously: Stories that hope to tell our story on the global stage must reflect that same diversity.

Toronto is ready to be itself

We have a long history in this city of pretending to be other places.

Chicago, Mean Girls, American Psycho, Good Will Hunting, The Virgin Suicides, The Umbrella Academy, Hairspray, The Shape of Water, X-Men, Pacific Rim, Suicide Squad (see above), and The Incredible Hulk are only a few of the many films and TV series filmed in Toronto.

Even on the rare occasions when Toronto plays itself, as the city does in Orphan Black, the reference isn’t explicit. You have to catch mentions of places like ‘Scarborough’ to be sure we’re not pretending to be New York, Chicago, or literally anywhere else.

Baldwin steps at Casa Loma, Toronto in Scott Pilgrim vs the world #casaloma  #toronto #baldwinsteps | Scott pilgrim vs. the world, Scott pilgrim, Vs the  world
Toronto’s Casa Loma steps feature prominently in Scott Pligrim vs. The World

For a long time, the outlier was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which is based on a Toronto graphic novel series of the same name.

Recently, however, things have shifted.

CBC TV shows like Schitt’s Creek and Kim’s Convenience, set in small-town Ontario and Toronto, respectively, found global audiences through Netflix and other streaming services.

Last spring, Pixar scored a critical hit with Turning Red, an animated feature film explicit about its Toronto connection and inspiration. Director Domee Shee is Chinese Canadian and told a story grounded in personal detail about a teenage girl entering puberty, torn at points between her mother and her friends.

Review: Turning Red is a Pixar movie that stays true to horny Toronto
The CN Tower and SkyDome feature prominently in Pixar’s Turning Red. Photo courtesy NOW Toronto.

Despite a few fringe reviews that questioned its relevance, audiences found glorious universality in its specifics.

A global urban brand in a changing world

In his victory remarks post-parade, Raptors President and Vice-Chairman Masai Ujiri was vocal about the Raptors and their potential to be a global brand. Here’s an excerpt from Cathal Kelly’s Op-Ed that week:

Ujiri spoke of the Raptors franchise in terms reserved for European soccer elites – truly global teams as likely to be followed in Taipei or Kinshasa as they are at home. This is a team that for years struggled to articulate why it should even exist.
Are the Raptors now bigger than the NBA?
“Yes. There’s no doubt about it,” Ujiri said, then referenced Liverpool FC: “We’re the new Reds. We’re going to capture the world.”
This is dizzying stuff. Nobody in this country talks this way. Too show-offy. Too treacly. Perhaps we should ask ourselves: Why not? Because it sounds kinda nice.

~ Cathal Kelly’s column, “With Churchillian rhetoric, Masai Ujiri envisions the Raptors as one of the world’s great franchises,” published in The Globe and Mail, June 25, 2019

Three years later, Ujiri signed another contract with the Raptors. He’s still bullish about the city and its prospects:

There is something unique about this place, which is why I took the job here. Even when we’ve won the championship, it’s almost still unknown. It’s a gold mine. Because it’s outside the United States, I don’t think people recognize that as much. There are so many things that can expand the minds of players, partners, workers.

~ Masai Ujiri in conversation with Louisa Thomas from, “How Masai Ujiri Builds a Team,” published in The New Yorker, November 7, 2021

Ujiri was the first to suggest that the power of that Raptors parade crowd could power a wider global movement. Five years into my own Toronto novel project, I was moved to hear someone of his achievements agree that there’s something special about this city’s blend of people and experience.

Could Chaos Calling be another story that captures the hearts of a global audience?

There’s only one way to find out.

Two weeks to go!