Hamilton West Ancaster Dundas NDP candidate Alex Johnstone, who is also Vice Chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The headlines are generated by a mixture of legitimate concern about a 32-year-old candidate who didn't know about the Auschwitz death camp, partisan positioning, a social media pile-on which is generating significant traffic for media outlets, and an election campaign that's the longest in Canadian history at a time where our public attention span seems to be at its shortest.
It all started Monday with a faux-controversy about a comment she posted in 2008 on a friend Facebook photo of a fence post at the death camp
"Ahhh, the infamous Pollish, phallic, hydro posts … of course you took pictures of this! It expresses the how the curve is normal, natural, and healthy right!" - Alex Johnstone in 2008 on a friend's Facebook photo.
A day after the faux controversy, Johnstone tells Andrew Dreschel of The Hamilton Spectator:
"Well, I didn't know what Auschwitz was, or I didn't up until today" - Alex Johnstone on Tuesday, September 22, 2015
The Hamilton Spectator published their story late Wednesday afternoon.
What followed a perfect storm leading to an online feeding frenzy - this is easily the most read and widely reported political story in Hamilton's history (and sadly one of the least important) - as a gap in leaders campaigning in the lead-up to Thursday night's French debate opened a news hole that Johnstone's comment filled.
By Wednesday's prime time newscasts, the controversy was the top story on numerous news websites and spreading rapidly among the country's political journalists and pundits. As I finish this post early Friday morning, the story has spread to Australia and into other languages as Continental European newspapers pick it up.
The controversy is real, but is it really deserving of world attention? No.
Should it be the top story in the Canadian election? No.
Does it deserve to be considered by voters in Hamilton West Ancaster Dundas? Yes, but voters should be weighting her platform and record significantly more than a gap in her history credentials.
Will it impact her chances of being elected? Yes, the question is will it be positive or negative? I'm not sure which, while the controversy is bad publicity in the short-term, the amount of negative worldwide publicity may neutralize the controversy as it is completely disproportionate to the perceived offense.
— Graeme MacKay (@mackaycartoons) September 25, 2015
It started seemingly common enough - someone finds a social media comment made years ago by a candidate.
The second act follow the script - the candidate apologizes for the comment, the media notes that it happened years ago, and the story itself starts to fade into the background as the 24/7 news cycle moves forward. There's some discussion about what the statute of limitations should be for social media comments, and then the candidate is in the clear. The show should have been over.
Then Johnstone takes this non-story and turned it into the international sensation it became.
Now, all Johnstone can hope people will move onto other issues and the hangover of gouging on this story will leave people reconsidering the narrative. (Exhibit A of reconsideration here)
What? Making Sense of the Statement
When I read the quote attributed to Johnstone, I was stunned. I immediately tried to find an explanation, any explanation rather than accept the possibility she was stating the truth.
How is it possible for anyone born and raised in our society to not be aware of Auschwitz? Is it even possible? Was Johnstone taken out of context? Was there a legitimate misunderstanding in the question and answer between the journalist and Johnstone? Was Johnstone lying or playing stupid? Why would Johnstone say this?
The original photo and comment have been removed from Facebook since the controversy erupted. However, the context of Johnstone's comment give her stunning statement credibility. She knew her friend was in Poland and the photo could be seen as a weird hydro pole - she didn't seem to know it was Auschwitz.
To counter this, her thesis, Beyond Professional Affiliation: Race, Class & Gender Dynamics in Interdisciplinary Teams, makes her statement regarding Auschwitz even harder to believe. How could someone school in social justice not be aware of one of history's greatest injustices?
I literally cannot fathom growing up and existing in this society and not having heard the word Auschwitz, tho.
— kady o'malley (@kady) September 23, 2015
I've observed Johnstone since she started chasing public office in Hamilton nearly six years ago. In the past, she's responded to controversy by stating she only just became aware of the issues - it's a common non-answer answer from politicians in Hamilton. (They promise to get back to you, but they rarely do.)
This doesn't seem to be the case in this instance. Each time she's dodged a question, she's done so with a short non-answer that sounds believable to the casual observer.
"Well, I didn't know what Auschwitz was, or I didn't up until today"
This is a direct answer.
I want to believe she choose to mislead, she choose to claim ignorance, anything to not have to accept the facts as I see them.
The truth is hard to grasp, but it is the truth: Johnstone didn't know about Auschwitz until this week and she was honest about it.
What Do We Call This?
"I'll take 20th Century History for $1,000, Alex." http://t.co/xOiJsrTYpG
— Glen McGregor (@glen_mcgregor) September 23, 2015
Ignorance seems to be the word that is sticking on social media.
While I prefer it over stupidity, ignorance doesn't seem accurate. There is no formal requirement for a candidate for Parliament to know the names of the individual Nazi death camps.
This isn't pop culture trivia, Auschwitz is important and the most infamous of the Nazi death camps but knowledge of its name isn't a requirement to understand the horrors of the Holocaust. She should know Auschwitz, but she didn't. Johnstone knows what the Holocaust is, participates in its remembrance, and is promising to improve her knowledge of this horrible chapter of history.
The Nazi death camps cannot be forgotten. Learning about them is a requirement of our elementary and secondary curriculum in Ontario.
I've struggled to find a word, but I can't think of one common to my vocabulary that fits this situation. What definitely doesn't fit and are offensive are words such as stupid, bimbo, and the whole lot of personal attacks being launched against Johnstone.
The best name I can attach to this? Human
Somehow, she didn't know Auschwitz by name.
What About Johnstone and What's Next for Her
I worry for Johnstone's well-being in this firestorm. I'm assured by the strong support I see local NDP stewards publicly showing for her.
She wants to be in public office, it is her goal. I've never seen her not campaigning for votes, building her alliances within the NDP, growing her profile within the community. She's not going to disappear from Hamilton's political scene.
There is little chance she'll be stepping aside from her leadership roles as a School Board Trustee.
I don't see how she recovers from this, I know she won't stop trying to recover. I fully expect she'll be back in 2018 running for either Council or Provincial Parliament.
She may still win her current race for the AWAD seat.
How Johnstone Can Still Win
Johnstone's style of politics is well suited to the challenge of overcoming this controversy before election day. She doesn't want to convince someone to vote for her who isn't likely to, she focuses on getting her base to the polling station and their ballot in the box.
You don't win elections by getting the majority of votes, victory is getting more votes that any other single opponent.
In the community and at the door, Johnstone is merciless in identifying her supporters and quickly getting out of conversations with non-supporters. She covers more ground than her opponents because they lose time trying to convince a voter to see their viewpoint and to vote for them, even when it is in vain.
If she gets back out canvassing, the NDP will have a strong voters list for Election Day - she'll focus almost exclusively on identifying her voters.
This may sound like a criticism, it is not. This is how Johnstone can win this election.
A strong voters list and an even stronger election day operation can savage victory for Johnstone.
She has lost a key asset in her campaign: A visit by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to boost her campaign is now out of the question.
Hamilton Centre, Hamilton East - Stoney Creek, Hamilton Mountain are safe NDP seats.
The candidates in these three ridings do not need the profile of a visit from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to rally their campaign teams and are not in need of media coverage to boost their name recognition - the impact of this is limited to one seat.
Impact: Liberals More Likely To Win Both Now and Election 43
— Filomena Tassi (@votetassi) September 24, 2015
For local Liberals, this is the opportunity they needed - the national campaign will increase resources to the Filomena Tassi campaign. In a minority Parliament, every seat counts. The national campaign already added resources to the HWAD campaign, this controversy means the Liberals have an opportunity to seize momentum from the NDP as the Johnstone campaign is effectively suspended.
Longer term, the Liberals gaining a seat in Hamilton is significant. The Liberals lost all their Hamilton seats in 2006 and have been unable to mount a close campaign in Hamilton since then. Other than former Flamborough Mayor Ted McMeekin at Queen's Park, there are no elected Liberals in Hamilton.
Both David Christopherson and Wayne Marston could retire after this term, leaving both Hamilton Centre and Hamilton East - Stoney Creek as potential open seats. A Liberal MP in HWAD means a higher profile for the local Liberals, an improved ability to raise funds, and a stronger riding association that can support other local candidates in 2018, or earlier if the result of this election is a minority government.
This could be the longer impact of this controversy - a shift in the power struggle between the NDP and Liberals.
Ending the Controversy
Johnstone is taking advice from the NDP national campaign at this point. Any wise political strategist will tell her to avoid media opportunities and stay out of the public eye until after this controversy peaks.
She doesn't get to choose how to win, she only gets to manage her losses.
Meanwhile, some of her supporters are trying to rally against the controversy. They must be careful to not restart the controversy - support for Johnstone is useful, criticisms of others roles in the controversy will not be.
Alex Johnstone created this controversy. It wasn't the other parties, the media, or even the frat-boyish website that dug up the 2008 Facebook post.
The controversy isn't the Facebook post, it's Johnstone's statement.
My advice: Make Johnstone human, have her take full responsibility for her comments, and let the pendulum of public opinion swing back from this current overreaction to Johnstone's longer term favour.
People are starting to suffer social media hangovers, offer them the best brunch choice.
And yes, this means letting Liberal tweets like this one slide:
— Ted McMeekin (@TedMcMeekin) September 25, 2015