The Alex Johnstone Controversy: Making Sense of It, and How She Can Still Win in HWAD

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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.

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.

Attention was recently drawn to a comment I posted on social media seven years ago. While never intending any malice,…

Posted by Alex Johnstone on Tuesday, 22 September 2015

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’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?

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

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:

7 thoughts on “The Alex Johnstone Controversy: Making Sense of It, and How She Can Still Win in HWAD

  1. You are absolutely correct that the candidate should not be condemned for her lack of knowledge, however, the job she is applying for in our federal government, requires at least a cursory knowledge of current and recent events. As a lifelong supporter of the NDP I am embarrrassed. Luckily she is not in my riding. The NDP candidate that is in my riding is presently a Hamilton city councillor and I am finding it difficult to vote for him. His cynical attitude is a real turnoff, oh well it looks like I’m voting Green Party this year.

  2. My feelings toward this was exactly the same as yours. It was the excuse of ignorance that got her into real trouble, not the original fb note. She did send me a personal apology as her political supporter, for this gaffe, and acknowledged that she does and did know about Auschwitz but she got flustered and went “off script” with this excuse. I feel for her. She’s a bright and positively ambitious person, definitely not stupid, and this unfortunate experience just shows how fresh she still is when she has to jump into the frey. I worry a little about her health too, but she has a fantastic support group through friends and family so it could be worse. I’m sure they’ll give her the good advice of chalking it up to experience. Thank you for explaining your take on where this will lead her and her supporters, and the Liberals. I think you’ve “hit the nail on the head”. Onward we trudge, through the rest of this long campaign.

    • “She did send me a personal apology as her political supporter, for this gaffe, and acknowledged that she does and did know about Auschwitz but she got flustered and went “off script” with this excuse.” … So, Johnstone admitted to you (as “her political supporter”) that she lied to Andrew Dreschel? That she knew about Auschwitz but, as a result of getting “flustered,” told the Spec the opposite? Hmmmm … A new twist in this strange story …

  3. I have watched Ms Johnstone from meetings I attended and my impression after this last mistake my thoughts are she looks and appears vacuous. I’m feel for her but my God to not know this ? I’m embarrassed too.

  4. I can’t be objective; I carry personal animus in this one. But I genuinely do believe that the country and the world got to know a little bit of the Alex Johnstone I know.

  5. I am a little conflicted on this. I know and like Alex. I am glad I don’t live in her Riding so I don’t have to choose between her and Filomena.
    I will say that if I had made up my mind to support Alex before her foolish comments were made public I would still support her. As a former politician I know how tough it is to be judged on one issue or incident rather than on one’s history and passion for their community. Sure Alex made a couple of dumb mistakes. Should the errors outweigh her record of public contribution and her passion for people?

  6. Our neighbourhood in HWAD got to know Johnstone’s character quite well during the Accommodation Review process that ended with our school’s closure (despite being almost full of thriving students, with a growing enrollment, but anyway …). Johnstone was not pleasant to deal with and ended up as one of the 6 who voted to close the school, while the other 5 trustees voted to keep it open. From that experience, and from seeing her attempt to discuss serious issues on Cable 14, many of us have determined that Johnstone lacks the character, ethics and (yes) knowledge to be an elected representative, even at the lowest of levels. Our community has been protesting against Johnstone ever since our school was unfairly taken away. So, not all of the online criticisms connected to Johnstone’s penis-joke about the Holocaust are part of some temporary, knee-jerk scandal. Some of us were calling Johnstone unfit for office years before this and we’ll keep on with our message — that “Johnstone closes schools and hurts kids,” or a variant thereof — as long as Johnstone is in politics. It is a part of democratic accountability and some of us consider it our duty to warn voters away from a politician with a history of harming vulnerable children.

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