John Horgan, the first two-term New Democratic Party (NDP) Premier in B.C., officially stepped down from his post on March 31. Not even one day after stepping down he joined the board of Teck Coal, one the largest exporters of steelmaking coal in the world. Teck is notorious for being the biggest polluter of B.C.’s Elk River watershed. When Teck was being raked over the coals for their role in environmental controversies during Horgan’s time as premier, he defended them. It used to be said that Horgan was in the pocket of the resource industry—now he’s literally on their payroll!
Horgan came to power promising to make B.C. more affordable, but the province is worse off than before for everyone except the energy companies. Horgan was one of the most vocal supporters of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, mining expansions, and subsidies for resource companies—all while homelessness, addictions, the cost of living, and anti-Asian hate crimes far surpassed what they were when he began his term. Under Horgan’s watch, the energy industry thrived while the most oppressed suffered.
‘Not worried about the criticism’
Horgan knew full well the reaction this move would draw. He just doesn’t care, telling The Globe and Mail, “I don’t have a lot of time any more, none in fact, for public comment on my worldview, or what I am doing with my time.” He’s sounding like a model coal executive already! He defended his career change by litigating the difference between coal burnt for heat and electricity and steelmaking coal. This is Teck Coal’s favourite pastime, done in an effort to obscure the fact that both types are still burnt, and that Teck’s coal released 65 megatonnes of carbon dioxide last year.
The coal mines of southeastern B.C. leech unimaginable amounts of poisonous selenium into the Elk River watershed. Selenium is harmful to aquatic and bird life at greater than two parts per billion. Some areas have reached 500 parts per billion, causing mass die offs of fish downstream. Several drinking wells are now unfit for human consumption. The B.C. NDP under Horgan fought to keep out federal regulations on mining effluent to safeguard Teck Coal’s profits, despite selenium levels increasing year to year and all attempts to control it proving futile. Teck’s mining waste piles will leach selenium into the Elk River for hundreds if not thousands of years if left alone. Teck, for their part, is now expanding their largest mine.
Horgan’s defence of Teck traces back well into his tenure as premier. In taking this position, Horgan is not just any old board member. He has the ears and the phone numbers of every single prominent policy maker in the province. For Teck, he’s what they might call “an asset”.
The B.C. government, under Horgan and his successor Eby, has staked much of the province’s economic future on the export of this key steelmaking ingredient. The sawmills and pulp mills of B.C.’s once-booming forestry industry are shutting down every year due to forest fires, pine beetle kill, and massive mismanagement from short-sighted mill owners. Forest product exports were down 9.4 per cent from last year, but overall export revenues in the province hit a record high of $64.4 billion in 2022, shattering the previous $53.9 billion record. This is thanks to B.C.’s top exports: coal and natural gas. Coincidentally, these are two of the industries Horgan’s NDP fought hardest to defend.
John Horgan’s legacy
Horgan has argued that all of the water the NDP has carried for fossil fuel companies has been in the effort of creating or keeping high-paying jobs and safeguarding the livelihood of British Columbians—but in these times of eye-watering record profits, wages continue to stagnate, the cost of living continues to rise, homelessness grows, and workers struggle more and more to live almost anywhere in the province. This is because the profits of these exports go to the pockets of a few wealthy individuals—the same people Horgan now works for. Workers throughout the province are left to burn in climate-change-driven forest fires and drink poisoned water while the bosses make off with the money.
Horgan didn’t enter politics believing that capitalism must be smashed, but rather that it could be tamed, tweaked around the margins to work for “everyone.” It’s unlikely a young John Horgan would ever have imagined ending up on the board of one of the most grotesque coal mining enterprises on the face of the continent, but decades in bourgeois politics would have an effect on anyone’s world view.
Things did not need to happen like this. If Horgan’s NDP was dead set on winning reforms that would make life better for working people, someone would have to pay for them. While the working class doesn’t have the money to pay, the ruling class, including the owners of Teck Coal, are not willing to pay. If Horgan had stood up to the bosses and threatened to raise royalty rates or taxes on corporations, the bosses would have threatened to pull all investment in a capital strike, ceasing operations and crippling B.C.’s economy, as was threatened in Alberta when Notley’s NDP took power. This is the logic of the capitalist system. The ruling class controls the economy directly, by its ownership. But it controls politics less directly. Rarely are politicians caught on the payroll of coal companies—that would be labelled corruption. Instead they exert constant pressure on politicians to cater to ruling class interests. In the event of a capital strike, the task would be to mobilize the working class to take over industry, nationalizing the coal fields and the rest of the commanding heights of the economy. Instead, Horgan watched Notley capitulate to the oil barons and chose a similar path.
The process which turned Horgan to put the interests of the bosses first has been replicated around the world time and time again. In Alberta, Rachel Notley won the 2014 election on the promise of raising royalty fees on the oil barons. When they threatened capital strike, instead of nationalizing the whole lot, Notley buckled and is now one of the most strident supporters of oil and gas. It would not be surprising if she found herself on the board of Cenovus or Suncor after her retirement from politics! A very similar dynamic can be seen with the failures of the reformist policies around the world: you either break with the capitalists and nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, or they break you.
Horgan’s government relied on the investment and royalty revenue of the capitalists in the resource sectors—then became beholden to them. Confronted by the pressure of the oil and gas barons, lumber companies, and the corporate media, Horgan—like many of his predecessors—bent and backtracked. By playing the game of the capitalists they accepted the rules of capitalism. This is why the B.C. NDP passed legislation upholding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) only to be complicit in the brutal police repression of the Wet’suwet’en when they opposed coastal gas-link. This is why the B.C. NDP was willing to fight the BCGEU’s 33,000 employees early last year when they went on strike for cost-of-living increases. And this is why someone like Horgan went from holding a “Site C Sucks” sign—and promising to scrap the project if elected—to being the premier who would get it built.
There is nothing surprising about this. Horgan isn’t even the first to make the move from NDP brass to industry executive. Moe Sihota, president of the NDP from 2009-2013 soon joined Woodfibre LNG, a liquified natural gas company, as a consultant and lobbyist. Glen Clark, NDP premier of B.C. from 1996-1999, became the president and CEO of the multibillion-dollar conglomerate Jim Pattison Group after resigning amidst scandal and controversy. The NDP would go on to suffer an eye-watering defeat in 2001, going from a majority government to just two seats.
Future for the B.C. NDP?
Horgan’s exit as party leader included him handpicking his successor David Eby in the fall of 2022, not expecting anyone to challenge the position. But when left-wing environmentalist Anjali Appadurai joined the race, and she appeared to sign up many more members than Eby had, it became clear she could win leadership of the party. The B.C. NDP was not content with convincing voters that Eby would be the best leader, and with the full might of the Canadian Labour Congress and John Horgan himself, they expelled her from the party and prevented her from running. By curbing Appadurai and crowning Eby, Horgan opened the door for the return of the B.C. Liberals in the next election, even giving them a catchphrase to tease the NDP with: the “Not Democratic Party”.
Appadurai urged her followers to stay and fight for a left alternative within the NDP, although it’s likely that thousands of members were expelled, or ripped up their party cards in disgust with her expulsion. While the Horgans and Ebys of the world are firmly in control of the B.C. NDP, these people are in the end bureaucrats with bylaws. As capitalism’s crisis deepens, the working class will be pushed to defend itself, as we have seen more and more. The upcoming class struggles will swallow these mediocre leaders whole.
The horrors that capitalism inflicts on the working people of British Columbia and around the world will not be remedied without class struggle. B.C.’s vast mineral wealth should be nationalized with its profits going to ending homelessness, massively expanding health care, and transforming the transportation and construction industries to green alternatives. Horgan’s actions and methods took us in the opposite direction. His appointment to Teck’s board is a fitting end for a man who prioritized the interests of the coal barons over the interests of the workers and oppressed.