The section of Highway 97 stretching 405 kilometres between Prince George and Dawson Creek — called the John Hart Highway, or just the Hart Highway — is named after British Columbia’s 23rd premier, John Hart.
Hart led a coalition government — BC’s first — from December 1941 to December 1947. A bespectacled man with a head for numbers, Hart left his mark on the provincial infrastructure landscape: he championed highway construction, including that of the highway that now bears his name; developed hydroelectric power; and established the BC Power Commission, one of the two bodies that would later amalgamate to form BC Hydro.
Throughout his 33-year political career (1916-1949), Hart never lost an election in which he was a candidate.
From Ireland to Victoria
Hart was born on March 31, 1879, in Mohill, Ireland. In 1898, at age 19, he left his family’s farm and relocated to Victoria, BC, where he worked in a financial firm until establishing his own financial business — Gillespie, Hart and Co. — in 1909.
Hart’s first foray into politics occurred during the 1916 provincial election, when he ran as a Liberal candidate and won a seat for the Victoria City riding.
Hart’s business savvy served him well in politics. He was appointed BC’s minister of finance in 1917, a role that he retained under three consecutive premiers — Brewster, Oliver and Pattullo — save for a nine-year period between 1924-1933 when he voluntarily retired from politics to concentrate on his business.
Rise to Premier
Hart didn’t actively seek the office of premier; it was a position he fell into during the unusual aftermath of the 1941 provincial election. That year, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (precursor to the NDP) won an unprecedented 14 seats, and Premier Thomas Dufferin Pattullo’s Liberal party failed to win a majority. Pattullo then refused the toe his party’s line by forming a coalition with the Conservatives against the CCF. The Liberals thus voted to remove Pattullo from power and established a coalition under Hart.
Hart was named premier on December 9, 1941. His coalition government proved popular enough to breeze through the next election in 1945. That election marked the first time in BC history that the Liberal and Conservative parties ran under a single banner.
An infrastructure legacy
Although government spending was largely curtailed during the years of World War II, Hart’s government pumped significant funding into new infrastructure projects from 1945 onwards.
In 1945, the government approved construction of Highway 97 between Prince George and Dawson Creek. The route was soon dubbed the John Hart Highway. When the highway finally opened to traffic in 1952, it gave residents of the Peace Region a major boost: they could now drive to central and southern British Columbia without having to detour through Alberta.
Further south, Hart’s coalition initiated construction of the Hope-Princeton segment of Highway 3, the Crowsnest Highway. The project began in 1945 and was completed in 1949.
Also in 1945, Hart established the BC Power Commission, a body mandated to provide electricity to small, rural communities not served by the city-centric BC Electric Company. In 1961, the BC Power Commission and BC Electric amalgamated to form BC Hydro.
Hart also left a legacy in hydroelectric power production. In 1947, his government completed the John Hart Generating Station in Campbell River, and in 1948, his coalition installed the first generator at Bridge River near Lillooet. Both stations remain part of BC Hydro’s current operations.
Life after retirement
Hart retired as both premier and minister of finance on December 29, 1947. He served as the Speaker of the BC Legislative Assembly in 1949, but did not seek reelection that year, preferring instead to return to private business.
Hart died on April 7, 1957, at age 78, in Victoria. He is interred at the Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich, BC.
Besides the John Hart Highway, other areas in Prince George that bear Hart’s name include the Hart Highlands subdivision and the John Hart Bridge.
- BC Hydro:
- The Canadian Encyclopedia, “John Hart”: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/john-hart/.
- Canadian Federation of University Women – Prince George, Street Names of Prince George – Our History, 3rd Edition, 2005.
- “Hope BC – History of Hope (Highlights)”: http://hopebc.com/history_hopebc-com.php.
- It Happened in British Columbia: A Pictorial Review – 1871 to 1971. Canada: The British Columbia Centennial ’71 Committee, 1970. p. 39.
- Prince George Citizen, Prince George Newspapers Digitization, Prince George Public Library: http://pgnewspapers.lib.pg.bc.ca/fedora/repository/newspapers:pgc/-/Prince%20George%20Citizen:
- 15 Feb 1945: “Okanagan endorses north road,” p. 1.
- Reksten, Terry. The Illustrated History of British Columbia. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001. p. 237.