We The North

Taken from the Raptors “We The North” campaign video

For businesses that rely on civic pride to generate popularity and revenue, Toronto’s self-denigrating attitude is toxic. Earlier this spring, the NBA’s Raptors came out with an ad that let Toronto be proud of itself, and not just the Toronto usually depicted on TV. Poet and sports commentator David McGimpsey wrote that “Canada’s racial imagining of sports has hockey all fathers and sons and car rides, where basketball is under a bridge by an oil drum fire.” He’s right to take racial and inner-city tropes to task, but the Raptors’ “We The North” campaign is a radical break from how Torontonians are willing to see themselves. Cities like Chicago and Detroit may be used to seeing themselves between Modernist high rises and under elevated expressways. Toronto, on the other hand, more often finds itself promoted through urban villages like Queen West and Cabbagetown, or as a “city in a forest” viewed from the lofty heights of the CN Tower. “We The North” showed the Toronto of St. James Town, the Port Lands, and the Gardiner Expressway.

“We the North” plays on Toronto’s outsider status in a league where it’s the only non-American team. Part of the campaign’s force comes from avoiding any mention of Canada. As a word, “Canada” is itself too closely aligned to sugar shacks, hockey games, and donuts. The Raptors described their playoff season as “the northern uprising,” deftly replacing the suggestion of toques and canoes with that of wolf pelts and helms from HBO series Game of Thrones’ rebellious northerners. Thanks largely to Game of Thrones, the “North” exists in the contemporary cultural imaginary as a region of outsiders and rebels. On the show, the “King in the North” brings an army down on the southern realms in a bid to have their sovereignty recognized. It’s an appealing narrative for an NBA team with a spotty record, especially one that exists as the lone representative of its own sovereign nation (after the Vancouver Grizzlies moved south to Memphis).

In addition to Game of Thrones overtones, “We The North” maintains an adamantly urban perspective on Toronto. The ad refers to the four cardinal directions as “sides,” the way you would refer to east, west, north and south in a city instead of a continent. The ad shows Toronto off as a modern metropolis, even imitating the working class urban attitude of Chrysler’s 2011 “Made in Detroit” campaign.

The NBA season is over, but “We The North” still leaves an impression on the racial imagining of Toronto. “We The North” proudly represents Toronto as a black city, but heavily borrows American tropes of a black downtown and applies them to Toronto. In Thirsty, Dionne Brand describes the TTC in polyglot terms:

These are the muscles of the subway’s syrinx

Vilnus, Dagupan, Shaowu, Valparaiso, Falmouth and Asmara.

The tunnel breathes in the coming train exhaling

as minerals the grammar of Calcutta, Colombo…

Brand’s choice of the TTC for this scene is crucial. In Toronto, the dispersion of low income and minority groups to the outer boroughs can give the impression of a city centre that is largely white. In the racial imagining of Toronto, “We The North” moves racial difference from the outer boroughs inward to the downtown core.

“We The North” touts both Toronto’s blackness and its urbanity as it interstices professional NBA footage with shots of iced over chain link fences. Adrian Worrel’s Scenes From A Winter Home challenges the TV-tropes of Canada’s typical winter activities, including the “father and son car rides” and hockey games. Worrel’s childhood in Scarborough includes street hockey, tobogganing “3 or 4 to a ride / berice-calcutta-hk-accra-style,” and forcing his friends to eat yellow snow cones. These are the scenes Tim Hortons leaves out of its ads; the childhood games and cruelties left outside the sphere of adult supervision.

Just as hockey is not necessarily suburban, neither must basketball be urban, even as neighbourhood villages increasingly define and divide the city, blurring these defining lines. “We The North” boasts of a city at its most Modernist: concrete, elevated, and proud. It’s Toronto from the 401. It’s the Toronto of the outer boroughs, where most of the city’s 2.7 million people live.

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