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Aidan Johnson wants to bring change to Hamilton

Lawyer and former Xtra contributor running for council hopes to be city’s first openly gay elected representative

Aidan Johnson says he has a track record of achieving legislative change through his activism on gay rights and other issues. Credit: Courtesy Aidan Johnson campaign

Aidan Johnson has always known he was a leader. From his work as a teenager leading the Hamilton school board to create a zero-tolerance policy for anti-gay bullying to his current work as a lawyer for Legal Aid Ontario, he’s been a champion for social justice with a proven record of success. So when a vacancy appeared on Hamilton City Council for his ward, it was an easy decision to jump into electoral politics.

“It’s something I’ve certainly thought about for many years; this year I consulted with my husband, Stefan, and we decided it would be something good to do,” Johnson says.

Johnson is running in Hamilton’s Ward 1, an urban ward encompassing the city’s west side that includes McMaster University. He says his priorities include ensuring that the recent downtown revitalization is inclusive of the city’s urban poor, protecting the ward’s marshlands and natural areas in Cootes Paradise, expanding the city’s participatory budget process, and pushing for complete and accessible streets for all road users.

Bookending a prestigious academic career, the 34-year-old Johnson grew up in the ward’s Westdale neighbourhood and now lives in Kirkendall. In between, he was a Fulbright scholar at NYU, got an MA at the University of Chicago and a law degree at McGill.

But through that time away, he never lost his connection with Hamilton. Since he was 16, he’s been a monthly columnist at The Hamilton Spectator, driving debate on issues ranging from LGBT rights to economic development. His writing has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star and Xtra. In 2003, Maclean’s called him a “young Canadian leader to watch for.” He thinks his high profile — along with endorsements from politicians like Sheila Copps and Bob Rae — puts him in a good position to win the five-way race for Ward 1.

“Lots of people in West Hamilton have been reading me on the Spectator op-ed page since I was 16 years old. So for 18 years, they’ve been following my evolution as an activist,” he says.

While Johnson’s candidacy has already brought him media attention — in a recent profile, CBC presented him as the first openly gay person to seek office in Hamilton — he says being out hasn’t been an issue for him so far on the campaign trail.

“I got an email from a gentleman in Ward 1 who asked me, ‘I opposed same-sex marriage, but I strongly admire your leadership generally. Would you oppose me voting for you?’ and I wrote back, ‘No, I would be honoured if you voted for me,’” he says. “To me, it shows that people are moving on, and that’s a very good thing.”

Johnson is not running from his gay activism either. He proudly references his campaign for a zero-tolerance homophobia policy at the Hamilton school board – carried out in The Spectator’s op-ed pages – as evidence that he can lead legislative change.

“It’s evidence that I can get the law changed not just to help LGBT people, but to help all people,” he says. “Ultimately, not everything is of LGBT significance. It’s of broad, human significance and evidence I can get things done.”

It’s an interesting time for Hamilton’s gay community. Over the past decade, a mini cultural renaissance has taken place, spurred on by new economic development and an influx of artists seeking cheaper rents compared to Toronto and other parts of the GTA.

These new, artistic residents are transforming Hamilton, creating a flourishing arts and nightlife scene. That’s encouraging LGBT youth to stay in town, which is helping to develop a permanent LGBT community. It’s a trend Johnson says he’d like to help the city nurture while ensuring that new development doesn’t price out the city’s urban poor.

“Fostering and increasing downtown Hamilton’s growth is a good thing for all people, and it would be a very good thing for the LGBT community. The more vital and safe and flourishing downtown is, the more of an LGBT community we will have, [leading to] good, fun, positive spaces for LGBT people of all ages in Hamilton.”

He also subscribes to the belief that strong LGBT communities help drive economic growth.

“Artists have been coming to Hamilton for over a decade now, and they make Hamilton cooler and more beautiful. People with money from Toronto and elsewhere are incentivized by the beauty and the coolness to come spend money in Hamilton, live in Hamilton and do business in Hamilton,” he notes.