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Rob Shaw: 'John from Langford' reflects on his life – but not his legacy

In a few exit interviews with media, the premier reflects on his life but steers clear of his legacy

History will undoubtedly record John Horgan as one of B.C.’s greatest premiers. It’s just, he doesn’t really want to talk about it.

The outgoing BC NDP leader reluctantly agreed to a series of “exit interviews” with media, as he prepares to wrap up 30 years in politics, and five years as premier, in the coming weeks.

Horgan had to be cajoled into doing them. Left to his own devices, he would simply have quietly stepped out of the political arena and back into “John from Langford,” as he calls himself, puttering around his basement polishing rocks and playing disc golf in the nearby park.

Horgan’s discomfort over speaking about his legacy, and his place in B.C. history, is obvious.

In an interview, he admitted it was difficult for him to process questions about how an entire generation of New Democrats view him as the greatest premier the party has ever known.

He’s similarly flabbergasted at the thought that future NDPers will sift through the decisions he made during his rise to power in 2017 for clues to crafting their own future victories, the same way a generation did with Dave Barrett in the early 1970s.

“It’s overwhelming, because I don’t see myself that way,” Horgan said during an interview.

“I see myself as me and Ellie, living in our modest house. Same house we’ve been in for 30 years. I don’t think of myself as anything other than part of the furniture in our life in Langford.”

But even if he won’t say it, he’s far more than that.

Horgan presided over historic wildfires, floods and the largest health emergency in modern provincial history. Throughout, and for more than five years, he remained extraordinarily popular with the public, even when his government’s policies were not. With a median approval rating of 54 per cent over more than five years, he’s B.C.’s most consistently popular premier since W.A.C. Bennett in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It’s very hard to register that,” said Horgan.

“I’ve been raised to be humble and not be boastful. And so it’s hard to get my head around all of that. I’ve done, in my mind, the best I could do. My level best, to use my mom’s phrase. And that’s all I think people should expect of their elected representatives – the best they can offer. Sometimes we’ll meet the test, and sometimes we won’t. I’ve been fortunate through tumultuous times to have people at least be confident that I was giving them the straight goods.”

Horgan didn’t always have such a positive connection with the public.

Just before taking office in 2017, he was often described by opponents as “Angry John” or “Hulk Horgan,” whose temper would flash during public exchanges with then premier Christy Clark in ways that were unflattering, to say the least.

But once becoming premier, Horgan settled easily into the role. His key: Authenticity. Groan-inducing dad jokes. An obsession with Star Trek. Superfandom of the Victoria Shamrocks lacrosse team. And the occasional dumb comment here and there that he’d quickly apologize for, somehow endearing himself to the public in an even stronger way in the process.

“Just being me, man,” he said, when asked how he did it.

“My opponents branded me as this angry guy. I’ve never been an angry guy. That’s not who I am. I had to play a role as Opposition leader, because that’s what was expected of me.”

To many in the province, Horgan’s overnight transformation from “Angry John” to the “Happy Warrior,” as he once called himself, seemed abrupt. But to the man himself, it was just part of the core he hadn’t shown the public yet, heavily influenced by being raised by his single mother Alice after his dad Pat died when he was only 18 months old.

“My mom, who is everything to me, she said, ‘Don’t ever lie because you have to remember it. When you tell the truth, it’s always there,’” said Horgan.

“I didn’t have to do community theatre, because I knew who I was. I knew what I wanted to be, and what I wanted to try and achieve.”

Although deeply partisan, and a lifelong New Democrat, Horgan said he tried hard not to be a blind ideologue in the office. For the first three years, he was forced to cooperate with the BC Greens to stay in power, compromising his election platform and agenda.

“It was never ideological with me,” he said.

“I think it might be what is the separating point between me and others who have been in this office, is that although I have my values that are well known, and I'm unapologetic about them, I haven't been an ideologue.

“Because life's more complicated than that. And as a student of history and political science, I know that those that draw hard and fast lines are short-lived.”

Horgan’s diagnosis of throat cancer in late 2021, and his subsequent treatment in early 2022, ultimately led to his decision to retire.

After his interviews on Tuesday, he was on his way for a checkup on the bladder cancer he had and successfully treated in 2008. He’s tired. He’s lost weight. His salivary glands were damaged from radiation to treat the throat cancer, and so Horgan chugs water because his mouth is constantly dry. He’s uncomfortable. And exhausted.

But Horgan also admits he was probably retired anyway, without the latest cancer scare. At 63, it was time to move on.

“As we prepare to leave this portion of my life and go on to the next, I’m excited about that prospect,” he said.

“But I also don’t know how much I’m going to miss this. I’ve been very fortunate. I just don’t believe I should stay. I think it’s time for me to go. And the fact I’m still thought well of is a bonus.

“I hope that puts the next person in a position where they can build on that. And I hope they will also have the same ability to look at all sides of an issue.”

His successor – likely to be David Eby – might well be able to learn to look at all sides of an issue. But it’s unlikely (some might say impossible) he’ll ever fill Horgan’s shoes in terms of popularity and public connection.

The passionate Irishman, who didn’t want the NDP leader’s job in 2014, but took it because he was asked to serve, has gone on to be the BC NDP’s greatest asset and one of the province’s greatest premiers. His contribution was immense. Even if his legacy is yet unwritten.

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Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.