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I had one of those lightning bolts of clarity while reading on the shores of Big Rideau Lake last week. The inspiration came in the form of the ideal political metaphor for Canada. To be fair, it’s hardly an original metaphor. But I think it helps me describe my political instincts using supportive imagery.

In the past year I’ve been quietly telling friends and colleagues of my recently rejuvenated interest in federal politics. One of their first questions is usually “But what party would you become connected with?” I take it as a compliment that people can’t easily link me to a natural political affiliation. I hope that stems from my inclination to see and use the best ideas from all sources.

But the answer is that on May 3, 2011, I became a member of the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC). I won’t elaborate right now on how I came to that decision but suffice it to say: I am confident that the LPC is where I belong.

I won’t say that aligning with a single party was an easy decision. Like most Canadians, I would find it hard to completely agree with the entire platform of any single party. And like most thoughtful individuals, my perspectives on important issues are nuanced and open to reconsideration as new information informs my understanding. Part of the challenge if you want to select a party and join with others in collective public engagement, is our unhelpful tendency to polarize political responses, to label them and fix their place on an ideological spectrum that simplistically ranges from left to right. But life is not so simple, nor so linear. We are complex people and we comprise an even more complex society. Some of my core values might be placed to the right on the political perspective. Other foundational principles to which I hold firm would be considered to be on the left. I’m insulted by the notion that my ideas could be easily summed up by a point on a linear spectrum.

I was recently impressed by the tag-line adopted by one of the possible candidates for LPC leadership. Martha Hall Findlay cleverly describes that her direction is “Not left, not right, but forward!” I like that. It’s progressive. It’s dynamic. It exudes ambition.

However, this week, I think I’ve discovered a metaphor I like even better. It’s the circle. My vision for the political future of this extraordinary country is best symbolized by a circle. Why? Well here I am deeply indebted to the tremendous writing of John Ralston Saul in his recent book, “A fair country”. Mr. Saul helpfully notes that:

“When we look at our critical situations in almost every direction – from economics through the environment to social relations – what we need is a non-linear approach. In the word of James Dumont, Ojibwa elder and scholar, we need ‘an all-around vision’ that can be inclusive, a circular approach to thinking, versus the ‘straight-ahead vision of modern thought’.”

So what is it about the circle that appeals to me in the context of a vision for Canada?

1. The circle is non-linear

This is clearly a point borrowed from Mr. Saul. A non-linear approach to leadership and decision-making leaves room for nuance, consultation and negotiation. These attributes are sorely lacking in many 21st century Canadian leaders. A circle shows flexibility – a willingness to bend and stretch, to adapt to complex and rapidly changing societal needs. For me, the circle also evokes the concept of Quality Improvement (QI) cycles. In the world of health care we use QI cycles to move ever closer to excellent care. The classic QI cycle includes the four stages of Plan, Do, Study and Act (PDSA). It strikes me that this kind of approach makes sense for leadership in most sectors. Some political leaders give the impression that once they have proposed a plan, it would be an embarrassment to accept feedback and make adjustments to the original plan. This is hubris and foolish stubbornness. A circular cycle of continuous reflection and improvement is how we could make wise progress and capitalize on the best ideas in the country.

2. The circle is inclusive

John Ralston Saul points to the circle as one of the symbols of the Aboriginal heart of Canadian society. This symbolism resonated with me deeply as he described the way that the circle can be ever expanded to welcome new people and diverse ideas. I live in York Region, Ontario – one of the many wonderful places in Canada. The City of Markham where I work is home to the highest proportion of visible minorities in the country. I love it. It is a rich place in every sense of the word. But its greatest wealth comes from the diversity of its people. I firmly believe that we will grow most rapidly and successfully as a country by joining hands in this ever expanding circle and including the strengths of all members of Canadian society. I have said elsewhere that the best way adults can learn is through social constructivism – that is, talking to one another, mixing our ideas and building on what we can each contribute such that new and better knowledge is created. As we learn and grow together, Canada will be stronger than ever.

3. The circle recognizes the lessons of history

I’m not the only person looking for a better symbol than the old left-right ideological poles. I already said that I was inspired by Martha Hall Findlay’s alternative: “Not left, not right but forward”. But I had a powerful “aha!” moment when I first considered the circle as a political metaphor because it speaks to our need to circle back to lessons from the past. By nature I am inclined to blaze ahead. In my work, I often get a glimpse of a better future for an organization or I dream up some new idea that may have never been tried before and I can hardly wait to start planning and taking action to move ahead. But happily I am surrounded by many colleagues and advisors who help keep me grounded. One colleague whom I greatly esteem cautions people like me from hitting “the explode button” whenever a great idea comes along. I am also indebted to the influences of my father, my husband and my eldest daughter – all of whom have their first university degrees in History. These are some of the people who have helped me to learn the value of “circling back” and using history (and the humanities in general) in the process of critical reflection. In this way, the circle is a perfect symbol of sensible political vision. It speaks to a process that is always in motion. The circle can move forward with progress and advancement toward a brighter future but there is an ever-present awareness of the lessons of the past.

So there you have it – the circle. This is my vote for best metaphor to optimistically describe the current state and the most hopeful future for Canada. I am hereby “putting it out there” for your feedback. Have I explained it adequately? Does it excite you to toss away the old left-right measuring stick and adopt the circle metaphor to explain our political future? Your response and dialogue will be an affirmation that the circle is indeed flexible and ready to expand so that we include all that Canadians have to contribute.

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