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John Horgan on cusp of retirement: 'I would like people to think that I stayed true to who I am'

As he prepares to step aside as premier this week, John Horgan is looking forward to more time with his family, and his new hobby: rock tumbling.

When Premier John Horgan famously told Freedom Convoy truckers en route to Victoria to “get a hobby,” he hadn’t yet considered that he might need one himself.

That was in March. Three months later, he announced he would step down as premier this fall. David Eby takes over from the 63-year-old on Nov. 18.

As for the hobby, Horgan got right on it. “He said it would be hypocritical if I don’t have a hobby,” said Ellie Horgan, his wife of 38 years.

Horgan recalled that the father of childhood friend Clayton Booth had a rock tumbler in their waterfront home in Brentwood.

“John remembers coming out there and hearing the rock polisher tumbling, tumbling, tumbling, so he phoned me up and asked: ‘Do you still have it?’ ” said Booth, a Parksville teacher who served as best man at Horgan’s wedding in 1984.

The 40-year-old rotary machine was tracked down in Booth’s sister’s basement and delivered to Parksville, where Booth tinkered with it. Next it was taken to the Rockhound shop in ­Saanich for a new belt. Ellie Horgan gave him another tumbler for his birthday.

Horgan now has the ­reconditioned and new machines to turn rough rocks into polished stones — not a bad analogy for his own experience. Pundits have said that Horgan, framed as combative and angry in 12 years of Opposition, was similarly put through the rock tumbler of political makeovers by advisers and transformed into a polished and conciliatory premier.

Horgan has a different version of that story. He said being in Opposition from 2005 to 2017 — he was acclaimed NDP leader in 2014 — forced him to play a role that he played well, which meant that he was branded angry. Once he was premier, he could relax into who he really was.

Longtime friend Keith Bridge, executive director of RunSport Victoria Society, supports Horgan’s version, saying: “He really didn’t change — he became himself again.”

“People started to see the real John Horgan and he fed off that because he was so comfortable that way.”

Despite being called brilliant by friends and colleagues, and one of the province’s finest premiers by one-time-adversary-turned-friend Andrew Weaver, the former B.C. Green leader, Horgan likes to think of himself as just “John from Langford,” formerly of Saanich.

“I’m a regular person that was given an extraordinary opportunity,” Horgan said in his office in the west wing of the legislature.

“I would like people to think that I stayed true to who I am and always had the people in my community at the centre of ­everything I did.”

‘He didn’t even really want the job’

John Joseph Horgan was born Aug. 7, 1959, to Irish Catholic father Pat Horgan and mother Alice May, nee Clutterbuck. He has three older siblings — ­brothers Brian and Pat and a sister, Kathy.

He was just 18 months old when his father died of a brain aneurysm, leaving his single mother to raise four kids. During lean times, the family sometimes relied on food hampers.

Horgan didn’t adopt his father’s Catholicism but embraced the rest of his Irish heritage, retaining his Irish passport and marking every St. Patrick’s Day. He also shared his father’s love of basketball and lacrosse.

By the time Horgan was seven, his older siblings were out of the house. He became his mother’s “rock.” “I would never want her to be unhappy,” he said.

He credits his mother and sister, who had her first child at age 16 and twins by 19, with passing on the values he holds dear today — truth, kindness, humility, trying your “level best” and protecting others.

Growing up in Saanich, Horgan attended Lakehill Elementary and Reynolds High School, where he was school president. He and his best friends shared a love of most sports. Horgan had a record player in his bedroom and a pool table in the basement. Booth recalls them listening to Donovan’s Mellow Yellow on a 45 RPM record.

Friend Michael Allabarton, now an international branding expert, said days after Horgan’s 18th birthday, the two set out for southern California with their Rand McNally map, listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in a 1967 Grand Parisienne. “If he was as lousy a premier as he was a navigator, the province would be in trouble,” he quipped.

At Disneyland, the pair bought the standard ticket package that came with “child ride” tickets. Horgan, who was six foot two and famously frugal, insisted they use them. “So there we are, a couple of 18-year-olds, going on the teacup rides because he has to use every last ticket,” said Allabarton, laughing at the memory.

To save for university Horgan had a variety of jobs, but often talks about his work at a paper mill in Ocean Falls on B.C.’s central coast. He later applied to Carleton University’s journalism program but said he wasn’t accepted.

He met Ellie during his first week at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. in September 1979 while on a pub crawl. It was love at first sight for Ellie, and for a drunk Horgan, who had to be poured into bed later that night. The next day, he met up with a “beautiful blonde” and wondered how she knew his name.

“I fell in love with her the minute I saw her, which is a day after she saw me,” said Horgan. “We’ve been together ever since. She’s kind and compassionate and always trying to help everyone around her. … She’s everything to me.”

“It was just magic,” said Ellie, a biologist by training. “There were sparks.”

Ellie, who comes from a Christian Reform Dutch background, said she blushes anytime John professes his love publicly, which is often. Both claim they’ve never had a fight. (Ellie added, for clarification: “We had one disagreement but that was really more of a miscommunication over long distance than anything else.”) The couple have two sons, Nate and Evan, both of whom are married and in their 30s.

Horgan graduated from Trent with a bachelor of arts, studying history, followed by a master of arts degree from Sydney University in Australia. A self-described policy wonk, Horgan headed right for government, where he could work with “smart people solving complex problems.”

He rose from legislative assistant in the federal government in Ottawa to chief of staff in the office of then NDP premier Dan Miller, and associate deputy minister for the provincial Finance Ministry on energy projects.

Following the election of the B.C. Liberals in 2001, Horgan started a management and research consulting company that did work for private- and public-sector organizations. After a few years, a family friend suggested that rather than yelling at the TV over the political news of the day, he should run for office.

Friend Adrian Dix, who worked with Horgan in Ottawa, suggested the same.

“When the Campbell government fired me, I thought, well, I’ll never go back to government and Adrian said, well, there is a way back. You can get elected,” said Horgan. “I didn’t know that would mean 12 miserable years in O pposition, but I finally got to work with smart people again.”

He was first elected to the legislature in 2005, then acclaimed as party leader in May 2014. After the B.C. Liberals failed to capture a majority, Horgan signed a confidence and supply agreement with the B.C. Greens and formed an NDP minority government.

He is the first premier from Vancouver Island since 1941, and often mentions the sacrifices of MLAs who travel long distances and leave their families to serve in Victoria and the privilege it was for him to be able to return to his own bed most nights, just a 30-minute drive from the legislature.

Ellie suggested one key to Horgan’s grounded nature is that he never planned to run for office, let alone party leader and premier. “The biggest thing was he didn’t even really want the job. He didn’t really want to be premier. So he came at it kind of through the back door — like ‘well, if I have to I will’ — and I think that made all the difference in the world, honestly.”

Horgan’s popularity — he had a median approval rating of 54 per cent over more than five years as premier, and was the most consistently popular since W.A.C. Bennett in the 1950s and 1960s — is in part due to his everyman appeal.

Horgan tells Dad jokes and is an unabashed Star Trek fanboy — upon being sworn in as the province’s 36th premier, he gave the “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute. He wears his love of the Victoria Shamrocks on his team-jersey sleeve. He is known to say both “hey man” and “dude” and drops the odd F-bomb — some of which he regrets, although it does make him relatable.

Horgan took the bus home at least once a month while in Opposition, has lived in the same “tiny bungalow” in Langford for more than three decades, and has maintained friendships since childhood with “a bunch of friends that aren’t political at all” and who “have loved me since we first became friends.” His friends agree they can say anything to Horgan.

During walks in the park, friend Bridge would remind a frustrated Horgan that ordinary people like himself, a businessman for example, “don’t think about politics all the time.”

Even in politics Horgan sought out and kept close bonds with people he saw as genuine — “the position invites sycophancy and I can smell that 1,000 miles away.” People he saw as genuine included former NDP leaders Carole James and Adrian Dix. He appointed James deputy premier and Dix health minister after becoming premier in 2017.

Horgan still goes on regular walks with James since she retired after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in March 2020. He still smarts over the episode of the so-called Baker’s Dozen — 13 MLAs who opposed James’ leadership and forced her resignation as NDP leader in December 2010.

He has a photo of Dix holding Horgan’s first-born son, now 34.

At a recent staff goodbye, Horgan introduced Hans Frederickson, a retired sheriff in his 70s, who has been with Horgan since the beginning. Everyone in Langford seemingly has his number as MLA.

Staff will say that on nights Horgan was exhausted and not wanting to go to an evening event, he’d inevitably be the last one to leave, talking to everyone in the room, sweeping the floors and folding the chairs.

As premier, he said, people sought him out: “It was an endless stream of people, diverse people from different backgrounds, different professions, different points of view,” he said. “And for an Irish storyteller, what could be better than that?”

There’s something to be learned from every interaction, good or bad, he said.

‘Exciting and daunting at the same time’

When Horgan officially steps down as B.C.’s 36th premier on Friday— having led the province through a pandemic, historic floods, wildfires and heat waves — he will have eliminated medical services plan premiums, slashed childcare costs, reduced ICBC rates and seen B.C. become the first province in Canada to advance Indigenous rights by adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Last week, the B.C. government amended the Firefighters’ Occupational Disease Regulation to add two new cancers — thyroid and pancreatic — to the list of cancers where firefighters with a certain amount of time on the job are automatically eligible for compensation benefits. Horgan’s brother Brian, 74, a former Victoria firefighter, has had three cancers on that list.

Asked in interviews to name his “regrets,” Horgan has said it bothers him that he misread the public mood over the economy with his support for a new $789-million Royal B.C. Museum and its proposed eight-year closure. He cancelled the replacement project and took full responsibility.

Governments have a platform and plan and make incremental progress, he said, “but along the way rocks are coming down the hill and we’ve got to push them back up — pandemics, fires, floods, heat domes, street disorder, the consequences of climate change — these are all things that are beyond the control of a mandate. … In that case, I feel no regrets.”

When Horgan initially told his wife he wouldn’t be a candidate for the NDP leadership, only to announce it over the radio later — he was acclaimed after Mike Farnworth dropped out of the race — “she was pretty unhappy with me.” “And so when we agreed that I wasn’t going do this anymore, she said, ‘And if you do change your mind, you’ll tell me first, right?’ ”

Once Eby, 46, was acclaimed and Ellie was convinced her husband wasn’t going to change his mind, “she was really, really happy,” said Horgan, who successfully completed radiation treatments in January for throat cancer.

He also survived a bladder cancer diagnosed in 2008. He’s lost about 40 pounds and needs to drink a lot of water due to dry mouth after radiation damaged his salivary glands.

Ellie said she’s “ecstatic” that he will be slowing down. “He’s on the go all the time and if he’s not on the go, he’s thinking about being on the go.”

Asked in interviews if the cancer forced his hand or if he would have retired anyway, he has given different answers, but he does say he feels as if it’s time for generational change.

He doesn’t know what comes next for him. “It’s a bit of a void and it’s exciting and daunting at the same time,” he said, adding: “We don’t have any grand-babies yet, but we’re hopeful.

“So that’s what our life is going to be. It’s going to be reconnecting with our old friends and making new ones.”

And then there’s the rocks.

With Horgan taking up rock tumbling, Ellie has gotten into lapidary, the art of cutting and shaping rocks, and silversmithing.

“I figure we’ll be the perfect husband-and-wife team with a little home-based business of making very funky Vancouver Island jewelry,” said Ellie.

The potential company doesn’t have a name yet. Premier Rocks?

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