John Joseph Horgan, 36th premier of British Columbia, 2017–present; political aide (born 7 August 1959 in Victoria, BC). John Horgan worked as a political staffer for BC New Democratic Party (NDP) premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Dan Miller. In 2005, he became a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia for the riding of Malahat-Juan de Fuca. He then revitalized the BC NDP after it had spent 16 years on the opposition benches. Following the 2017 election, Horgan engineered a power-sharing coalition with the Green Party to topple a weakened Liberal regime. After Horgan called a snap election in October 2020, the NDP won 53 of 87 seats and Horgan converted his minority government into a governing majority.
Early Life and Education
John Horgan was 18 months old when his father, Pat, died of a brain aneurysm, leaving his stay-at-home mother, Alice, alone to support four children. John spent his earliest years in a family that survived with the help of relatives, neighbours and his local church, receiving food hampers at major holidays like Christmas. “People would step up to help me and that was a great help for my mom,” he said. “She was always grateful and again she instilled in me, ‘People have helped us, you should help them.’ That's just how I've rolled ever since I remember.”
Raised in the Saanich district of Victoria, Horgan attended Reynolds Secondary School, where he failed science, math, typing and French in Grade 9. He admits that by 14 he was smoking cigarettes and on the wrong path. His high school basketball coach helped turn him around, mentoring him and getting him on the varsity basketball team at Trent University in Ontario. Horgan met his wife, Ellie, there while earning a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Horgan later earned a Master of Arts degree at Sydney University in Australia.
Horgan and Ellie have two sons, Nate and Evan. In 2008, Horgan was diagnosed with bladder cancer, but recovered after treatment and surgery. A dedicated Star Trek fan, Horgan once tried to audition for a spot as an extra in a Star Trek movie that was filmed in Vancouver; he was told he was too old. In his spare time, he refinishes furniture bought at second-hand stores and garage sales. He says he appreciates the wood grain because he is colour blind.
After university, Horgan travelled to Ottawa to try for a job in a museum. Instead, he ended up working in the mailroom of his local member of Parliament, Jim Manly, from Cowichan-Malahat-The Islands. Horgan went on to become an aide to Victoria MP Lynn Hunter in 1988. He returned to work in British Columbia's NDP government in the 1990s.
Horgan served NDP premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Dan Miller in various backroom roles. He helped troubleshoot key files and was especially focused on energy policy. He rose to become Miller's chief of staff in 1999.
The New Democrats were defeated in 2001 by the BC Liberals. Horgan then left the government.
British Columbia's parliament is located in Victoria.
In 2004, Horgan ran for electoral office after one of his son's friends challenged him to do something other than complain about the then BC Liberal government. “As a parent, put on the spot, I said, ‘Well, I'm going to run for the legislature,’” he says. He won the riding of Malahat-Juan de Fuca for the NDP in 2005. He was re-elected in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
In 2011, with the party leadership vacant, Horgan made a bid for the job. He finished third in the leadership race. Two years later, after the party's defeat in the 2013 election, the leader's job again came open but this time he declined; he cited the acrimony and division within the NDP caucus as his reason.
“You all know me to be a little bombastic at times… I'm making a greater contribution when I'm free to just be me,” he said. “The prospect of the constraints of message boxes and having to check with other people — I'm going to say stupid things and I'm okay with that. But as leader you're under so much scrutiny I believe that would constrain my ability to add to the debate about where we need to go as a party.”
When a viable leadership race failed to materialize, Horgan was convinced to reconsider. He won by acclamation on 1 May 2014.
As leader, Horgan was forced to soften some of his pro–resource development positions to appease the NDP's environmental movement; and to backstop the party against the growing popularity of the BC Green Party. He had previously defended the controversial oil and gas practice of fracking, supported the development of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, and emphasized jobs and growth in resource-dependent communities. This put him at odds with the environmental wing of the BC NDP.
As a result, Horgan became an opponent of the $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which the NDP-friendly building trade union called a “slap upside the head.” And he promised to pause and review the $9-billion Site C dam project in BC's northeast — a project he had previously supported.
The NDP focused most of its 2017 election campaign efforts in the voter-rich suburbs of Metro Vancouver. The party promised to eliminate bridge tolls, improve housing affordability, create $10-a-day daycare and boost school funding to remove portables in communities like Surrey. The strategy would pay off, with a surge of NDP victories across the region.
During the campaign, Horgan also faced pointed questions about his temper. This manifested itself in a particularly tense exchange with Liberal premier Christy Clark during a radio debate. As a result, his opponents dubbed him “Hulk Horgan.” He countered that he was a passionate man of Irish heritage who was upset at the injustice perpetrated by the Liberal government; and that he was fighting for the underdog. But the issue of his temperament had persisted in media coverage since his earliest days in politics.
“I see myself as a happy warrior,” Horgan said in a 2014 interview. “You have to have a sense of hope and optimism. And I think that comes through in a smile, more than it does in a wagged finger. Am I passionate? Absolutely. But I think I’m as prone to tears as I am to anger and I certainly prefer laughter to everything else.”
The NDP made sizable gains in the 9 May 2017 election. They finished with 41 seats in the 87-seat legislature, reducing the Liberals under Clark to a minority of 43 seats. Three Green MLAs held the bare balance of power. Green Leader Andrew Weaver offered potential support to both the Liberals and NDP.
John Horgan attended bargaining sessions with the Greens and recast a previous antagonistic relationship with Weaver into a working relationship for both parties. The two men bonded over their love of rugby. The parties agreed to support a referendum on electoral reform, and a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties.
Horgan and Weaver announced on 29 May 2017 that the Greens would support a new NDP government; the two parties would bring down the Liberals with a non-confidence vote. Christy Clark asked Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon to dissolve the legislature and trigger a new election. Instead, Guichon called on Horgan to form a new government. It was the first time in British Columbia since 1883 that a government had been defeated on a confidence motion and replaced by an opposition party without an election.
Horgan was sworn in as the province’s 36th premier on 18 July. He took pains with his first 22-member cabinet “to make sure the ethnic diversity of British Columbia was reflected.” This included 10 racialized ministers and secretaries and the first female First Nations minister in the province’s history, Melanie Mark. The cabinet was also gender balanced.
Horgan’s fledgling minority government was thrust into several immediate crises. These included severe wildfires sweeping the BC interior and a worsening fentanyl overdose death rate. (See Canada’s Opioid Crisis.)
As premier, Horgan pushed the rapid execution of his agenda. Within two years, at his administration’s halfway mark, he had enacted roughly three-quarters of the promises in his election platform. This included marquee items such as removing bridge tolls in Metro Vancouver; reinstating a provincial human rights commissioner; increasing the minimum wage; boosting social welfare payments and providing additional funding to the education system.
Yet his early tenure also came with several high-profile challenges. In a referendum on 20 December 2018, voters rejected a proposal to change British Columbia’s electoral system to proportional representation. Electoral reform had been a cornerstone of the NDP-Green confidence and supply deal.
Horgan was also unable to stop the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project between Alberta and British Columbia. He had promised voters in the election campaign that he would do so. He mounted several legal challenges and a draft bill to limit oil imports that was ruled unconstitutional. The uncertainty contributed to the federal government purchasing the $9.3-billion pipeline from the Kinder Morgan company to ensure its construction. Horgan admitted in early 2020 that courts had clearly ruled the project would proceed.
The personal relationship between Horgan and Weaver appeared strong, and both men publicly lauded their friendship. But this did not stop their two parties from clashing. Horgan and his cabinet approved the completion of the controversial Site C dam project on 11 December 2017, despite speaking negatively of the project in the election and promising a review. Weaver, who opposed the dam project, said he was angry at Horgan’s decision; but he would not dissolve the partnership with the NDP that allowed Horgan to govern.
Site C also appeared to have been an early turning point for the premier and his administration. Horgan and the NDP began to take a more pragmatic view of governing following 16 years as an activist opposition party. “If we’re going to be a government that governs for all B.C.ers, we have to set aside our activism and start being better administrators,” Horgan said in 2017 interview, shortly after the Site C decision.
Horgan’s pragmatic approach continued in March 2018 when he offered an additional $6 billion in tax breaks to attract LNG Canada, a consortium of oil and gas companies, to build a $40-billion liquefied natural gas terminal in Kitimat. It worked. On 1 October 2018, LNG Canada decided to proceed with the project. It is the single largest private sector project in Canadian history.
Horgan’s courtship of LNG drew praise from the federal government and business community; but it angered Weaver and the environmental wing of Horgan’s own party. Yet as before with Site C, Weaver did not break his agreement with the NDP government. Instead, Weaver and Horgan began to work on a climate change plan that could offset the pollution caused by LNG Canada. The result, a CleanBC plan was announced in December 2018. It was lauded by Weaver and is considered a high-water mark of the NDP-Green relationship.
Horgan made history on 28 November 2019 when his government became the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law.
2020 Pandemic and Election
Following the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the winter of 2020, Horgan largely deferred to his provincial health officer, epidemiologist Dr. Bonnie Henry. He had appointed her to the position in 2018. Henry drew international acclaim for quickly implementing a sound testing strategy and enforcing social distancing orders. The province had the earliest community-spread outbreak in the country. But it was able to lift its lockdown restrictions by the end of May. By late June, the province’s infection rate of 55 per 100,000 people was considerably lower than other heavily populated provinces. (Ontario’s was 226 per 100,000 and Quebec’s was 641 per 100,000.)
As a result, Horgan’s government received high marks for its handling of the pandemic. In early June, an Angus Reid poll showed that 87 per cent of British Columbians believed the BC government was doing a “good job” handling the pandemic. Sixty-seven per cent approved of the government’s handling of health care, and 59 per cent approved of its handling of the economy. By the end of August, Horgan’s popularity had risen to almost 70 per cent.
On 21 September 2020, about seven months into the pandemic and one week after the election of Sonia Furstenau as leader of the BC Green Party (Andrew Weaver had stepped down to sit as an independent), Horgan abruptly ended his coalition with the Greens and called an election. This was a clear violation of their partnership agreement. The announcement came one year before the province’s fixed election date. Horgan’s rationale for holding an early election was the possibility of a majority government; he argued it would provide the province with better stability during the pandemic. “I believe that what we did in the past is one thing,” Horgan explained at the time, “What we need to do in the future is quite another matter, and the best way forward is to ask the people of British Columbia where they want to go and who they want to lead them.” At the time of the election call, Horgan had the highest personal approval rating of any premier in Canada.
Horgan’s decision to call a snap election was seen as a high-risk, high-reward gamble; one that could provoke a backlash. The move was immediately criticized by Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson and Green leader Furstenau. She accused Horgan of power-grabbing rather than governing.
At the beginning of election, the NDP polled as high as 49 per cent. Horgan mainly ran on his record from the previous three years. He also promised to expand access to $10-a-day daycare and implement a rent freeze until the end of 2022. Wilkinson ran on a pro-business platform of cancelling the provincial sales tax for one year and eliminating the small business income tax. Furstenau tried to make an issue of Horgan calling the election during a public health crisis. She called on voters to deliver another minority government, rather than giving one party all the power.
On 24 October 2020, British Columbia held the second general election in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 500,000 mail-in ballots were cast — the highest in the province’s history. The NDP secured a majority with 57 seats. They succeeded by flipping battleground ridings in Metro Vancouver, such as those in North Vancouver, Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Burnaby and Coquitlam; as well as in the Fraser Valley. They were all previously held by the Liberals, who were reduced from 41 seats to 28. The Green Party, which Horgan had hoped would be eliminated from the legislature, remained with two seats. The split in the popular vote was roughly 45 per cent for the NDP, 36 per cent for the Liberals and 15 per cent for the Greens.
The seat differential was the largest margin of victory for the NDP in BC history. Horgan also became the first NDP premier in BC to win a second term.