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Business Commentary Toronto Raptors are resetting perceptions of who Canadians are and what they might offer

Rana Sarkar, Consul General of Canada in San Francisco/ Silicon Valley

A winning team can carry a country on its back, influencing collective moods and stimulating the economy. It can shape global perceptions of the country itself, displacing well-worn stereotypes with a new game tape. The Toronto Raptors’ dramatic run in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors is a unique moment for U.S.-Canada relations that is playing out well beyond the court.

For many Americans, including the influential Warriors fans in the San Francisco Bay Area, the NBA Finals offered a close-up look at a confident and diverse new Canada, represented by the Raptors and their raucous fan-base.

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The Raptors are resetting perceptions of who Canadians are and what they might offer. U.S. interest in the team and place is almost a preview, or glimpse at an inspiring other way. It shows up when they see the natural celebrity of superfan Nav Bhatia, or hear the enthusiasm of player Serge Ibaka talk about his adopted home. They see it in Drake’s moxie, but mainly from the crowds in the stands and many Jurassic Parks. There is something special happening in Toronto and, indeed all of Canada, which has been on display throughout the playoffs. It’s a lesson in dynamic pluralism; a working diversity fed by smart policy and healthy institutions that has become ever more valuable in the intangible economy.

The 2019 NBA Finals represent a “mindshare moment” that directly affects Canada’s offensive and defensive interests in the United States. The playoffs come at a fortuitous moment when the Silicon Valley ecosystem is ready to consider and better understand Canada. The San Francisco Bay Area remains the world’s most important tech hub, and has an outsized role in the current global economic and geopolitical order. Companies based in the area are valued at more than US$4-trillion. The region is the epicentre of at least a half-dozen related tech revolutions, from synthetic biology to artificial intelligence, all of which are remaking the world as we know it. Canada has a role to play in these revolutions. As the Bay Area Council Economic Institute noted in their recent Hemispheric Partners report, flows of capital, research, and talent provide distinct synergies between the Bay Area and Canada, and a strong foundation for further growth.

The timing of Canada’s tech moment is significant. Currently, Silicon Valley is facing challenges as a result of the financial inequality and upheaval of the most recent tech boom. The cost of living in the Bay Area is one of the highest in the United States. The Economist notes the average San Francisco Bay Area house costs US$940,000 or 4.5 times the U.S. average. Getting your kids to school can be tough. It can be a challenging place to live if you have not won the super lottery. As the backlash against the dominance of big tech grows, there is a collective search for new models. It’s time to look beyond borders. Canada’s model, while far from perfect, stands out as a beacon of smart policy and practice. Beyond stable cities and public services, we hear about Canada’s smart investments in talent, innovation and infrastructure built on a coda of openness. Leaders here also notice Canada’s global leadership on rights, justice and gender, which signals an alignment with new preconditions of innovation, empathetic capacity and agility. In this next economy, the soft stuff is the new hard stuff. These developed advantages sit atop decades of strong institutions.

Building the new Canada’s offensive and defensive interests in this ecosystem regularly reminds me why it is vital for Canada to have a strong voice in conversations with tech leaders. My role is not only to drive investment to Canada, but also to strengthen links between Canadian companies and this ecosystem. Canada’s allure is strong but the Raptors enable it to reach far greater audiences in different voices. They provide a look at the “New Canada,” which is diverse, open, highly skilled, and on the right side of issues such as immigration and climate change that talent, particularly millennials, highly value.

In addition, Bay Area companies facing protectionist measures and immigration challenges are taking advantage of smart Canadian programs like the Global Skills Strategy to expand their reach into Canada’s markets. In the climate of the tech exodus from Silicon Valley, tech workers are starting to look north of the border to take advantage of growing opportunities in Canada’s tech sector. Tens of thousands of Canadians live and work in Silicon Valley, many hailing from Canada’s diverse cities and part of the “Raptors generation” who came of age with the team and its culture. They are joined by earlier waves of Canadians who are central players in Silicon Valley and the global tech ecosystem. The 2019 NBA Finals was an ideal time for them to take a fresh look at what is happening at home.

Basketball isn’t just any sport. It has special currency, infused with pop culture and courtside celebrity, built for social media. Its stars embody the democratic and increasingly global culture of Canada, from suburban hoop dreams to global, transnational Canadians. Toronto’s coming of age could not be happening at a more important time in Canada’s global leadership moment. Let’s build on this momentum.

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