03/15/2012 11:50 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Nycole Turmel's Role In NDP Drama Comes To A Close


On Saturday July 23, 2011, Nycole Turmel's vacation was interrupted by a phone call and five-minute conversation that changed her life.

On the other end of the line was Jack Layton, calling to inform Turmel that his cancer had returned, he was taking time off from his duties as NDP leader and he wanted her to take over.

"It's still like yesterday," Turmel recounted while sitting on a couch in her office — the Official Opposition leader's office. "It's so clear in my mind where I was sitting, what I was doing."

Turmel's immediate reaction was to tell Layton she was sorry to hear about his health, then she asked, "Why me?"

Today, eight months later, she will be asking more questions — but they will be her last in the House of Commons during question period as the interim leader of the Official Opposition.

The 69-year-old MP for Hull-Aylmer, a Quebec riding across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill, was brand new to the House of Commons, having only been elected in May, when Layton hand-picked her to take over.

She had spent more than 25 years working for unions, but like many in the newly expanded NDP caucus, Turmel barely had a chance to learn the ropes of her new job before the House of Commons rose for the summer break.

Within a few weeks of joining the NDP caucus, Turmel was being asked by her new boss to lead it.

Layton told her that she knew Canada well because of her union jobs and that he believed she was the right person to fill in for him.

"I said yes, I'll do whatever you need," Turmel recalls. She hung up the phone — then promptly poured a glass of wine.

"It changed my whole weekend — my whole life," she said.

Two days later, Turmel said, she was shocked by Layton again when she was watching his news conference on TV at her cottage north of Montreal. She didn't expect him to name her publicly as his choice for interim leader but once he did, the phone calls of support began to pour in from the NDP caucus.

The NDP's federal council confirmed the recommendation and Turmel began preparing for her new role with Layton's staff.

They briefed her on how a leader's office operates and held policy sessions so she would be up to date on the NDP's positions.

Turmel led NDP through period of mourning

Layton was aiming to be back at the helm for Parliament's fall session, but he died Aug.22, with his wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow at his side.

Turmel said she didn't know Layton as well as some of the other MPs and his staff, but she was brought to tears when she heard the news.

"We needed him, we needed him so badly," she said. "We are the Opposition, and he worked so hard to get us there, and then this happened."

The realization that she would be interim leader for many more months to come, that she would be the one sitting across the aisle from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, quickly settled in and she got to work.

A few days before the House resumed on Sept.19, she entered the chamber and took a look at her new seat on the front bench.

"I was shaking a bit," Turmel admits.

Turmel was nervous when she led her first caucus meeting, worried about her fellow MPs accepting her, but she said she was not scared of questioning Harper, only of her performance generally in question period.

English is her second language, and at times Turmel would trip over her words. There were other challenges — facing the media was one of them, she said — and Turmel had to make some difficult decisions that affected her caucus.

One was to strip leadership candidates of their critic roles — a decision she says in retrospect was a good one — and having to discipline John Rafferty and Bruce Hyer for breaking party ranks on the long-gun registry vote.

"It was sad," she said about the vote. "My objective was to keep the team together and I was really worried that it would divide the team. It did not."

A united caucus was her focus

Keeping the caucus united, through a period of mourning their lost leader and then through a lengthy leadership race that originally included seven MPs, was Turmel's No. 1 priority.

She thinks she delivered, and that the new leader elected on March 24 will inherit a cohesive team from her.

Turmel said she hasn't decided who she is voting for, but she knows what kind of leader she wants: "A people person."

Meeting Canadians across the country is what she enjoyed most about her time as leader, which she describes as an exciting experience and "a plus in her life." She appreciates the opportunity, especially as a woman, and is thankful for the support she received.

Her staff held a special event for Turmel earlier in the week and on Wednesday, Turmel led her last caucus meeting. Shortly afterward, Chow stood in the House of Commons to thank Turmel for her tireless work and to highlight her accomplishments.

Recognition for her performance is even coming from her political rivals. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said that it was a remarkable event for Turmel to be thrown unexpectedly into the role and that she showed a lot of determination.

"I think all members of the House have a lot of respect for her, a lot of affection for her. She's a very nice person, a very decent person and she's worked very hard," he said.

Turmel signed up to be a member of Parliament and ended up leading the Official Opposition.

She hopes she's done Layton proud: "I hope that wherever he is that he's not disappointed in his decision."

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