Early Life and Education
John Horgan was only 18 months old when his father, Pat, died of a brain aneurysm, leaving his stay-at-home mother, Alice, alone to support four children. He 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 the filming of a Star Trek motion picture in Vancouver, but 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, before returning 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, troubleshooting key files and focusing particularly 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, and Horgan left the government.
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, and was re-elected in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
In 2011, with the party leadership vacant, Horgan made a bid for the job, finishing 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 — citing too much acrimony and division within the NDP caucus.
“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 Greens. He'd 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'd previously supported.
The NDP focused most of its 2017 election campaign efforts in the voter-rich suburbs of Metro Vancouver, where 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 on election night.
During the campaign, Horgan also faced pointed questions about his temper, which manifested itself in a particularly tense exchange with Liberal Premier Christy Clark during a radio debate, and in the branding of him by opponents as “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 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, finishing with 41 seats in the 87-seat legislature, and 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, and that 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 since 1883 in British Columbia 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.
After the formal ceremony at Government House, Horgan and his ministers held an open house at the B.C. legislature, where hundreds of people mingled with his new cabinet and enjoyed free ice cream.
His fledgling minority government was thrust into several immediate crises, including severe wildfires sweeping the BC interior and a worsening fentanyl overdose death rate.
As premier, Horgan pushed the rapid execution of his agenda. Within two years, at his administration’s halfway mark, he’d 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, despite promising 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 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, as it 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, which would be the single largest private sector project in Canadian history.
Horgan’s courtship of LNG drew praise from the federal government and business community but angered Weaver and the environmental wing of his 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, announced in December 2018, was highly lauded by Weaver and 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.