Alex Johnstone: Life lessons after the infamous Auschwitz comment
Johnstone was criticized in Canada and beyond after telling a reporter she'd never heard of Auschwitz
Alex Johnstone is a school trustee with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board who ran for the federal NDP in Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas in 2015.
This week, schools across Ontario are celebrating Education Week. After my run for federal office, one of the first questions people asked me was, "what have you learned?"
Reflecting back, my year started out with a "top of my game" feeling. First elected as a school trustee at age 26, I was reelected to serve a second term, became vice chair of my school board, regional vice chair of our provincial association, and I had successfully led our school board to become Ontario's first local government to pay all of our employees a living wage.
By the spring of 2015, I was asked to stand as a candidate in the 42nd federal election. Together with a fantastic team, we worked hard to create one of the most vibrant NDP campaigns in the region, attracting more volunteers, signs and donations than we had ever seen before. Our momentum caught the eye of party headquarters and we were promoted to priority status. The stakes were high. The riding was one of the country's true three-way races and we were giving it our all.
In the final stretch, it all came to a grinding halt. My campaign was marred by an old Facebook photo of a concrete pole I did not realize formed part of a fence surrounding a Nazi concentration camp. I have replayed the interview with the reporter a thousand times. Coming off the stage after an all-candidates debate, the reporter asked me over and over why seven years ago, I made a joke about a fence at Auschwitz until I finally admitted I had not previously known what Auschwitz was.
The profound shame, humiliation and anxiety felt unbearable. You want to say or do anything to make it stop. I thought of quitting. I thought of worse.- Alex Johnstone
A tsunami of criticism hit. International headlines, political cartoons and thousands of online comments calling me stupid, a liar and making crude remarks about my gender. My family deleted their social media accounts out of fear that they too would become subject to scrutiny. The profound shame, humiliation and anxiety felt unbearable. You want to say or do anything to make it stop. I thought of quitting. I thought of worse.
Some say life only throws at you what you can handle. I learned to face adversity at an early age when I failed Grade 1. The shame I felt as a youngster is not unlike the shame I felt this past year as an adult. I have dyslexia, a common learning disability that affects the way the brain decodes language affecting reading, writing, speaking and hearing. People with dyslexia are 3D thinkers (and often great problem solvers) meaning that we think primarily in images and not words with little or no self-narrative. We may read text backwards, have difficulty differentiating letters that have a similar shape like b and d, mispronounce words and jumble or fuse together multiple sounds.
I was and am well aware of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz and other concentration camps throughout the Holocaust. What I did not recognize was the word Auschwitz.
The worst part of this experience was that I awakened the Jewish community's greatest fear – that the brutality of the Holocaust will be forgotten. These lives and memories mattered deeply and always will.
Since the election, many women and youth have told me that they no longer believe they can run for office. They are not sure if a controversial post about them existed on the internet. That's not the lesson I want anyone to take away.- Alex Johnstone
Unexpected acts of kindness mean the most. In my darkest hour, people reached out and helped me get back on my feet. I am eternally grateful for the kindness shown to me by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B'nai Brith Canada.
Our Hamilton team was incredibly supportive. My party heroes contacted me – Peggy Nash, Megan Leslie and Niki Ashton. My city councillor and mayor called.
People I did not know called. Most astonishing, our team of wonderful, dedicated and courageous volunteers continued to knock on doors and put up signs. I walked away from this campaign feeling a profound sense of humility and gratitude.
In the last week of the campaign, I quietly travelled with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to Auschwitz and was privileged to hear Canadian survivor Max Eisen share his personal accounts.
Since the election, many women and youth have told me that they no longer believe they can run for office. They are not sure if a controversial post about them existed on the internet.
That's not the lesson I want anyone to take away.
Rather, the lesson for our upcoming generations who have their entire histories documented online; for people struggling with dyslexia and for everyone experiencing and living adversity is not to forfeit your dreams and give up. We need your talent and passion. Rather, the lesson must be to always work to be the best person you can be and when mistakes happen, and they will, to take responsibility, make corrections and to seize the opportunity to grow into a better version of you.