POLITICS
07/25/2011 03:25 EDT | Updated 09/24/2011 05:12 EDT

Nycole Turmel, Layton's Choice For NDP Leader, A Consummate Union Soldier

Nycole Turmel Website

UPDATE: Nycole Turmel has been unanimously backed by the New Democratic Party caucus as the party's interim leader.

Original story

The NDP's likely choice of Nycole Turmel to temporarily replace party leader Jack Layton suggests a party that isn't about to give up its social-democratic roots.

Layton recommended Turmel replace him as the head of Canada's official opposition on Monday, at a press conference where he announced he would be stepping aside temporarily due to a new cancer diagnosis. Layton, who had been in treatment for prostate cancer, said he is now suffering from "a new, non-prostate cancer that will require further treatment."

Layton leaves his party at a time of unprecedented strength, with the NDP having won 103 seats in the May 2 election, making it the official opposition for the first time in history. The party's new-found strength prompted many pundits to call for the party to move to the political centre, to supplant the Liberals as the principal alternative to the Conservative government.

But proposing Nycole Turmel -- the newly-elected Member of Parliament for the Ottawa-area Hull-Aylmer riding -- to head up the party suggests Layton isn't planning any moves away from the party's leftist roots just yet.

Turmel, elected to Parliament as part of the "orange wave" that swept Quebec in the May election, is a consummate NDP insider. A government employee for much of her career, Turmel was the first female national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Her role in the NDP caucus has reflected this; until being appointed interim leader, she was the party's Public Works and Government Services critic, and sat on the parliamentary committee on government services.

If approved by the NDP's caucus and federal council this week, Turmel's appointment will carry heavy symbolism. With Prime Minister Stephen Harper preparing to pare back the civil service, and many observers predicting a battle between the Harper government and public-sector unions, the appointment to party leader of a person who once held the most influential position within Canada's public-sector unions suggests the NDP is preparing for a fight.

Turmel had previously criticized the creation of the Service Canada network of offices, which the former Liberal government brought in to streamline front-line services. She argued that small offices in rural areas would not have the capacity to help Canadians.

The rookie MP last month criticized the federal government for reducing costs by hiring through employment agencies at rates lower than what it had previously paid for those positions. She said she didn't "have any confidence" that the Conservative government would properly carry out a strategic review of hiring levels at the federal government.

Turmel worked as a career civil servant through the 1980s and 1990s, before becoming the PSAC's first female president in 2000. She retired in 2006, and has since worked as vice-president of the Ombudsman's Office in the city of Gatineau and holds a research chair at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal (UQAM).

Political pundits will inevitably question the choice of a rookie MP to run the party, but Turmel's record so far includes a number of firsts that will likely give critics pause.

Campaigning on a locally-focused platform that included backing a rapid-bus service for the Gatineau area and a new ferry crossing to Ottawa, Turmel took nearly 60 per cent of the vote in Hull-Aylmer, ending a nearly 100-year-reign by the Liberals in the riding.

"I have huge respect for Jack Layton and all the work the NDP has done to defend workers' rights," Turmel said in a statement in February, when announcing her candidacy. "I decided to join the NDP because it represents my values, denounces inequalities and fights for real change."