NDP candidate Alex Johnstone promises to learn more about Holocaust

The NDP candidate who reportedly told a newspaper this week that she hadn't heard of the Auschwitz concentration camp is reaching out to local and national Jewish leaders, who were astonished at her lack of knowledge.

She issued joint statement with B'nai Brith and will work with it to combat anti-semitism

Alex Johnstone, the NDP candidate for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, seen here with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, has been criticized on social media for telling the Hamilton Spectator that she 'didn't know what Auschwitz was.' (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The NDP candidate who reportedly told a newspaper this week that she hadn't heard of the Auschwitz concentration camp is reaching out to local and national Jewish leaders. 

Alex Johnstone, NDP candidate for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, is reaching out to rabbis, community leaders and the president of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said federation CEO Barb Babij.

And late Thursday, she issued a joint statement with B'nai Brith Canada, in which she promised to learn more about the Holocaust and work with the organization to promote peace and combat anti-semitism.

The moves come after Johnstone, who is vice-chair of the local public school board, generated controversy this week. 

A satire site called the True North Times dug up a Facebook comment from 2008 where Johnstone joked that an electrified fence at Auschwitz was phallic shaped, and the site contacted local media about it.

"Ahhh, the infamous Pollish [sic], phallic, hydro posts," Johnstone commented underneath a photo. "Of course you took pictures of this! It expresses how the curve is normal, natural, and healthy right!"

That same morning, Johnstone, 32, deleted the post and apologized on her Facebook page.

"Attention was recently drawn to a comment I posted on social media seven years ago," Johnstone said. "While never intending any malice, this comment was clearly inappropriate. I would like to offer my unreserved apology."

But the matter worsened when Johnstone gave an interview with the Hamilton Spectator late Tuesday and reportedly said she wasn't familiar with Auschwitz until this week. 

"Well, I didn't know what Auschwitz was, or I didn't up until today," she said.

People erupted on social media, with reactions ranging from exasperation to disbelief. That includes Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Canada.

"FSWC disturbed by NDP candidate remark and ignorance re Auschwitz, particularly as vice chair of a school board," Benlolo tweeted.

Benlolo said he invited Johnstone on the centre's annual educational trip to Auschwitz on Oct. 11. "If I was her. I would take us up on the offer to become a better educated leader, which is clearly what she wants to be," he said.

As for the Hamilton Jewish Federation, "we were astonished that a federal candidate didn't know what Auschwitz is," Babij said. 

"We accept that there's no malice intended. We think all candidates of public office should have basic knowledge of major atrocities and events such as the Holocaust."

In the joint statement with B'nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn, she again apologized. The agency said that after meaningful conversations with her "we feel that she truly appreciates why her Facebook comments were inappropriate."

​There was a mixed response from Johnstone's opponents in the riding race.

Conservative candidate Vincent Samuel issued a written statement on Thursday

"I'm just shocked that someone in her position doesn't know what Auschwitz is," he said.  "It's up to her to explain how that can be. That said, I do wonder if Thomas Mulcair is still comfortable with her as his candidate."

Liberal candidate Filomena Tassi said the "comments are baffling," but would go no further.

"My focus is on trying to be the best representative I can for the people of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas," she said. "I don't really want to comment any further."

Green Party candidate Peter Ormond also declined comment.

Johnstone is a development co-ordinator at the YWCA in Hamilton and regularly appears on the local public affairs show The Opinionators. She also has a master of social work from McMaster University.

The riding of Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas is of particular interest this election. The new riding encompasses areas where all three major parties have governed.

Several candidates across the country have taken heat for social media-related gaffes this election.

Liberal candidate Ala Buzreba dropped out of the race in Alberta's Calgary Nose Hill after four-year-old tweets surfaced of her telling someone they should have been aborted with a coat hanger.

Soheil Eid, a Conservative candidate in Joliette, Que., apologized for a Facebook post that drew a parallel between the words of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and comments attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's infamous propaganda minister.

The election is Oct. 19.



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