As a heatwave settled thickly on Toronto, community leaders, members of the Raptors front office, and the Prime Minister of Canada filed enthusiastically into the vaulting cool of the Raptors practice facility. There, on the hardwood most familiar with reps, where the team spends their time doing the same move over and over until they get it right, a brand new action was taken. Alongside Raptors Vice Chairman and Team President Masai Ujiri, Justin Trudeau announced the first National Day Against Gun Violence, to be held as a day of remembrance and awareness going forward every year on June 1.
The announcement, and the day, came as a culmination of a meeting and subsequent petition the Raptors put forward a year ago to bring awareness to the growing threat of gun violence in Canada. That petition gandered over 30,000 signatures and sought to gain the federal government’s ear in inciting policy to address the 80 percent rise in violent crimes involving guns in Canada since 2009, where one in three homicides is related to firearms.
Ujiri was candid when he spoke about his experience with gun violence. First, with the shootings in La Loche in January 2016, a small community in northern Saskatchewan that Ujiri visited with the Raptors, and then with the two Somali-Canadian mothers who started the group Mending a Crack in the Sky after losing their sons to gun violence. Ujiri said both things showed him “how close gun violence is in our communities.”
“I’m happy everyone is here in this sports environment because I think sports is a protector,” Ujiri said. “Sports brings people together, sports bring peace in an incredible way, and sports is a connector.”
John Wiggins, the Raptors Vice President of Organizational Culture and Inclusion, echoed the stance in noting how important it was — and has been — to use the platform the Raptors have to affect significant change within the communities that support the team.
After the petition, the Raptors hosted talks with leaders from communities affected by gun violence, and with municipal and provincial politicians, asking what needed to be done and how the organization could help. Wiggins, the only Canadian on the Raptors leadership team, takes his civic responsibility and the platform he has with the team seriously.
“We can’t do it without them, I’m guided by the information they’ve given me. Everything we’re doing is in support of work that they were doing,” Wiggins told Dime, noting that the community leaders integral to the day’s announcement and its subsequent policy impacts approached Ujiri, asking for help in amplifying the cause. “If we can catch the federal government’s ear and say this is an issue we need everyone to pay attention to, then we’re doing our job as leaders in the community. None of this gets done without community.”
“Our ownership takes pride in this, our players take pride in this. For us, we have to be voices,” Ujiri told the room. “You can say why does sports participate in these things? This is our community.”
Today, Masai Ujiri and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined community members to announce the first National Day Against Gun Violence.
This day will serve as an annual reminder of the epidemic affecting our friends, neighbours, and communities across Canada. We are grateful to… pic.twitter.com/qp0Coms8OS
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 1, 2023
Some of the community that Ujiri referred to and Wiggins has used his position to support were late — their bus got stuck in traffic. Shortly after the announcement by Trudeau and Ujiri was over, a group of young women and men in gym shorts and shirts filed quietly but excitedly into the gym. They were participants of Midnight Basketball, a program initially launched by Toronto Community Housing in 2013 and that the Raptors helped reinstate last spring.
“Every Friday what we do is we shuttle in kids from different communities downtown to University of Toronto’s gym — just giving them a different option on a Friday night,” Wiggins smiled, glancing around at the kids, now mid-scrimmage. “We feed them dinner, go through some life lessons with them, and then we play basketball until about midnight and we make sure they all get home safe.”
Wiggins took part in the program when it first started and says it was the only place he wanted to be on a Friday night growing up. It was also something his family valued because they knew where he was, and that he was safe.
“It’s something that we wanted to revive and it’s something we want to expand across the whole city,” Wiggins said. “It’s just another way of what we see as a prevention measure. To keep [kids] away from any of the negativity that might be happening out there, to allow them to thrive and come together so that they can have a positive experience. It goes back to what the PM said, we want to show them that they matter.”
While the announcement for a National Day Against Gun Violence and the further policy Trudeau and his party have promised are distinctly Canadian mandates, the actions taken by the Raptors have broader impacts on the NBA writ large. James Cadogan, the Executive Director of the NBA’s Social Justice Coalition, was in attendance. The representative of a league that is primarily situated in the United States, Cadogan spoke to Dime about the energy he felt on display.
“The first step to be able to solve a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem, and this is as big of an acknowledgment as you can get,” Cadogan stressed. “What the Raptors have done — with the federal government, civil society leaders, and folks impacted by gun violence — to dedicate a day against gun violence is a huge step forward.”
Asked if there are applications stateside for the blueprints being drawn in Toronto for Canada, despite the U.S.’s failed efforts to pass the sorts of sensible gun reform that polls remarkably well among its population, and Cadogan thinks there can be takeaways. He stresses that any lasting advocacy comes from building the right kinds of partnerships.
“It looks different place to place, market to market, even challenges like community safety and violence manifest differently, but ultimately it’s about taking a day like today and saying how do we put together all these groups of people, and say that we can do something different,” Cadogan says. “We can replicate that in other markets on our issues. That’s a powerful way to approach the challenges.”
Ujiri went up and down the line of the Midnight Basketball group as they got to, belatedly, meet the Prime Minister. The Raptors President was warm and completely relaxed. He stopped to chat with each young athlete, cracking jokes and asking questions that made it clear he’d met some of them before. The franchise has some of its largest basketball decisions on the horizon, but there was, just then, nothing bigger than this. Nothing was more important than the community which will benefit from actionable steps toward facing gun violence, and watching them relax, palm a basketball, and start to play.