The 'mercurial Irishman': A profile of B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan

One of B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan's biggest challenges is getting people to know who he is. That's why he decided to allow the public a glimpse inside his personal refuge.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan is trying to get people to understand who he is before B.C. Liberals do it for him

NDP Leader John Horgan finds his refuge playing disc-golf on a course he built with his sons in a wooded area near his home. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Welcome to the refuge of the leader of B.C.'s New Democratic Party.

Climbing up rocks on the side of a hill, covered in moss and mud, John Horgan has never seemed so sure of his footing.  

Behind the home he purchased with his wife 25 years ago and in which he raised his children, sits a massive wooded area that remains undeveloped.

Up the hill off the back porch, hangs a rusted coffee tin, just one of 18 tins and picture frames that make up the holes of a disc golf course Horgan built more than a decade ago with his sons, Nate and Evan.

NDP Leader John Horgan tracks a frisbee as CBC reporter Richard Zussman tees off on Horgan's disc golf course. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

The property isn't Horgan's. It's owned by Westhills Development and will soon be handed over to the City of Langford. While the NDP leader plays groundskeeper on the property, he also uses the land as a place to get away from politics.

"I thought I could get into politics and just be a normal guy. You are not able to do that," said Horgan. "[This] is a place where I can just be me."

Who is John Horgan?

But who exactly is Horgan? There are many questions.

Is he a hothead who can't control his temper under fire? — something the B.C. Liberals have been suggesting ever since he was elected leader in 2014.

Is he indecisive with no plan for the economy, an accusation that has been the subject of attack ads?

Ellie and B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan have been married for 33 years. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Trying to figure out any politician can be a complex task, but Horgan says his message is really quite simple.

"The message I want to leave with people is that the people at the top have had their premier, and it is time that people had a premier that is working for them and that has just not been happening," he said.

"I want to focus on the people who have been keeping me going, my neighbours. They are just regular folks."

Meeting Ellie

To understand who Horgan is you have to go back.

His father died whe he was just a baby. Horgan was raised by his mother and looked up to his sister, who was six years older.

On the second day of undergraduate studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., he met Ellie. Thirty-eight years later, they're celebrating their 33rd year of marriage. 

Ellie Horgan has done no interviews since her husband was elected leader but decided she wanted to explain who he is in her eyes, especially after the attack ads.

"He is a genuine, caring person. If he says he will do something, he will do something. It was a parental habit of ours: don't make any promises you can't keep and he has definitely pulled that through," said Ellie, the one person who knows Horgan better than anyone else.

Ellie and John Horgan first met during the first week of their undergraduate degrees at Trent University in Ontario. (Provided by the Horgan family)

The couple have spent nearly every day together since they met, until Horgan won the NDP leadership. But his election schedule has changed all that.

"We do have a routine now so that we are in contact every day he is on the road," said Ellie.

"Very often he doesn't want to talk work when we speak on the phone because I have already lived it, I don't want to live it again. He is very happy just to hear the news from the home front," said Ellie.

A 'mercurial Irishman'

One thing you learn about the self-described "mercurial Irishman" on his woodland disc golf course is that he is gracious but intensely competitive.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, seen here at his home in Langford during the 2017 election campaign, says Highway 14 is "virtually beside my house.". (CBC)

That competitive spirit is one that has been with Horgan, now 57, from a young age.

Jack Lusk was Horgan's Grade 9  basketball coach at Reynolds Secondary in Victoria.

"I wouldn't say he was a good loser, but he didn't blame others for it. He was always very fair and certainly did want to win," said Lusk.

"When you asked something of John, he gave it to you. He wasn't the best basketball player that I met, but that wasn't here nor there. The honesty of his effort is what I liked the best about him."

Entering political life

After completing his undergraduate studies in history and Canadian studies at Trent and his Masters degree in history in Australia, Horgan came back to Canada, first working in Ottawa before settling in Langford, B.C.

Shortly after, Horgan entered politics, rising to chief of staff for interim B.C. premier Dan Miller — the pair tasked with the challenge of keeping together, as Miller describes it, a fractious caucus of New Democrats.

"He is very, very personable and I think he relates well to people," said Miller. "He is not boastful, John isn't. We have gone through this incredible period over the last six years where the premier has boasted we are going to have LNG and that hasn't come to pass. He is not given to BS and he will tell it how it is. He is a straight shooter."

Can Horgan convince voters he can create jobs?

John Horgan set up the disc golf course behind his home with the help of his son Nate. (Provided by Horgan family)

However, Horgan is not everyone's cup of tea. The New Democrats have historically been able to count on wide-ranging union support, but this time around the B.C. Ironworkers Union Local 97, which remained neutral in the last election, has thrown its support behind B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark's re-election campaign.

"How do I go to my members and say I need you to support the NDP when they are against everything the ironworkers stand for?" said Doug Parton, the business manager for the 1,800-member union while endorsing Clark at the beginning of March.

"When they come out against the George Massey bridge, that's a direct attack against the ironworkers and I can't take it any other way. That's our bridge."

Back on the disc golf course, those sort of attacks are far from Horgan's mind.

His only focus on a Sunday morning is winning the match in front of him. And with a strong finish, that's exactly what he does — a result he jokingly says he hopes to replicate in a different kind of competition on May 9.

Listen to CBC reporter Richard Zussman's interview with NDP leader John Horgan: