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John Horgan, who will be acclaimed NDP leader on Thursday afternoon, says he’s discovered he likes being around people. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)
John Horgan, who will be acclaimed NDP leader on Thursday afternoon, says he’s discovered he likes being around people. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

Teen’s question launched John Horgan’s public career Add to ...

John Horgan is set to become B.C. NDP Leader this week in a bid to become premier in 2017 – and it’s all because of a challenging question posed by a blunt teenager.

Barring the unlikely arrival of a new leadership candidate, the 54-year-old Mr. Horgan will be acclaimed party leader on Thursday afternoon, succeeding Adrian Dix.

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Until 2004, Mr. Horgan was satisfied to work behind-the-scenes in federal and provincial politics with assignments that included policy analysis for NDP premier Mike Harcourt and chief of staff to premier Dan Miller. But one day at his Langford home he was yelling at the TV over news that BC Ferries would have new ships built in Germany instead of British Columbia.

“What are you going to do about it?” asked a 16-year-old friend of one of Mr. Horgan’s two sons. Mr. Horgan said Wednesday in an interview he had been put on the spot.

“I thought, ‘This is a learning moment for both of us.’ So I said, ‘I think what I’ll do is I’ll seek the nomination to be a candidate in the next provincial election, but I need your help.’ He said, ‘Sure. I’ll help you.’”

At the time, Mr. Horgan was happily working as a consultant. “I never saw myself as a front guy. I was always more into the policy development. I liked grappling with big issues, and finding solutions.”

In campaigning and becoming elected MLA for Malahat-Juan de Fuca in 2005, Mr. Horgan says he learned something about himself that resonates today: “I really like hanging out with people.”

Mr. Horgan and Ellie, his business-owner wife of 30 years, plan to do a lot of hanging out with people this summer.

“We’re just going to hop in the car and drive around B.C., visit people. We were going to do that as part of the leadership campaign, but that was to talk to New Democrats. Now I’ve got the opportunity to just talk to everybody. I will be the leader of the opposition,” he said. “It will broaden the people I can talk to.”

It’s a new phase for the feisty Mr. Horgan, opposition house leader and energy critic. He placed third in a 2011 bid to lead the B.C. NDP, and initially ruled out another bid this time because he thought a next-generation New Democrat should take the helm.

After rookie NDP MLA David Eby decided not to run, Mr. Horgan entered a race that came to consist of him and the slightly older Mike Farnworth, a friend and fellow MLA. Mr. Farnworth eventually bowed out.

“I’m the younger generation I was looking for,” quips Mr. Horgan, who has been an NDP member since 1983.

The self-described “happy warrior” is a fan of the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly because of his irreverence. “[He] calls out the absurd when he sees it.” Mr. Horgan likes team sports – “I never much liked tennis or golf”– but has cut back on playing basketball due to age. He’s also a Star Trek fan, charmed by the shows’ inclusive message and particularly the female captain in Voyager.

“I grew up with strong female role models,” he explains. Foremost among them was his late mother. She raised four children while juggling clerical and computer operations work at Saanich municipal hall after Mr. Horgan’s father died when Mr. Horgan was 1 1/2 years old.

“I supported [former B.C. NDP leader] Carole James to the last day. I have a lot of comfort with strong women.”

Mr. Horgan’s academic journey included stops at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., where he met his wife and earned a BA, and Sydney University in Australia, where he wrote an MA thesis comparing federalism in Canada and Australia. The Horgans considered staying for good, but returned to Canada.

“We got married, my wife and I, and went on a 2 1/2-year honeymoon in Australia,” he said. “It was a great way to solidify our relationship and start out our life together.”

It has been a busy life. One sobering milestone came in 2008 when Mr. Horgan was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He is now free of cancer, but still lives with a sense of urgency.

“Your time here is fleeting and if you believe you can have a positive impact, you should try and make it because you may not get that chance again,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

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