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Hill Dispatches: 'I accomplished what I wanted to,' says Turmel

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Nycole Turmel conferring with her Press Secretary, Karl Bélanger

For the past six and a half months, Nycole Turmel has had to deal with a situation without precedent in Canadian parliamentary history.

Last May, for the first time in its history, and in the history of the CCF that preceded it, the New Democratic Party won the status of Official Opposition.

Even for an experienced leader the task of building an effective force in the House with the newly-elected group of 103 NDP MPs, so many of them rookies, would have been daunting.

Turmel had to undertake that task in the wake of the sudden death of the leader, having never even sat in the House herself.

At first, shock and sadness

She well remembers when the phone rang, last summer, and it was Jack Layton calling to ask if he could recommend her to the party's Executive Council for the role of Interim Leader, while he dealt with his illness.

"It was a shock," she says. "I felt much pain and sadness and I asked myself -- why me?"

"This all happened quickly, because Mr. Layton's voice was quite weak. In fact, he asked my permission to speak English because he did not feel well enough to speak in his second language."

In Turmel's mind this was to be only a temporary job, for a couple of months, and she was not inclined to resist or argue with her stricken leader.

"I asked him why me, and he said you're the best person to do this, now... When your leader asks you to take on such a role, especially with the voice he had at that moment, you don't think of other things. You say yes!"

That was an especially difficult time, because she could not discuss this sudden turn of events with anyone.

"Mr. Layton told me this all had to be confidential, and I could not even talk to my husband or family about it."

But once it became public, Turmel feels she got all the support she possibly could from the party and its leadership.

"First, there was the Federal Council that affirmed Jack Layton's recommendation. They gave me a good reception, just as did the caucus, later on. There was unconditional support. I appreciated it then and still appreciate it."

Even those who had held senior leadership roles in the caucus were quick to tell Turmel they were behind her 100 per cent.

"Some of them even called me to say -- we understand Jack's decision. If there is anything we can do, just call. We'll be glad to help."

Decisions on staff and caucus roles

Turmel's first task was to make sure she had the right people on her own staff.

"I decided not to make any big changes in the team," she says. "Mr. Layton was coming back, in my mind, in the first place. And, as well, I felt I could trust his team. I believed that they knew what they were doing."

As for the parliamentary caucus, the one crucial decision she made was to ask leadership candidates to step away from their critics' roles. She does not regret that decision, and, in fact, feels it is one of the most important of her tenure as Interim Leader.

"This allowed a certain stability," she explains. "It was important to clarify everyone's role. There would have been problems if we had critics who were in the House one day then gone to campaign for the leadership the next."

"We had to give the new people who would become critics the chance to learn their dossiers. I think this has worked and I believe my decision was well-accepted."

As for how those rookie critics -- especially those from Quebec -- have worked out, Turmel is very pleased.

"The rookies do great work," she says. "Take Alexandre Boulerice, or Hélène Laverdière in foreign affairs, or Phil Toone, for example. They have all shown professionalism and worked very hard on their files."

She admits there were great challenges in dealing with a caucus that was so new and fresh.

"As new members we did not know many of them. But when we questioned them -- they were all involved in their universities or their communities. So it turns out they had lots of experience, even if they had never sat in Parliament."

Even dress is an issue for a leader

Turmel also had to prepare for her new role as Leader of the Opposition in the House, the one MP who gets to ask the first set of questions each day in question period.

"At first there was an intense period of preparation," she reports. "I got much support from the staff. We worked on dealing with media. We had policy briefings, and sessions on international issues. And I could really depend on our party's critics, who have much good experience."

She had to be prepped and prepared in every way -- including wardrobe.

"There is a difference between how a leader must dress and how an MP can dress," Turmel points out. "When I speak in the House, people must not notice my clothing. As leader, we don't want people distracted by how I dress. We want them to pay attention to what I say."

The national media has made much of Turmel's English, which is sometimes laboured, though better that most English-speaking reporters' French.

Turmel says she takes the responsibility of communicating in both official languages very seriously.

"I work with an English teacher, twice weekly," she explains. "And everyone in my entourage speaks only in English -- except for [press secretary] Karl Bélanger. The other leaders' staff members are anglophone, and we always speak in English among ourselves."

Still a rookie member herself

Although Turmel is a veteran union leader and has run for the NDP in the past -- like the McGill Four and the other Quebec rookies, it took the "vague orange" of last May to get her into Parliament for the first time.

Even after more than six months, she still feels a bit like a newcomer to Parliament, and she has not lost her sense of excitement about being an MP for first time.

"Quebeckers when they voted, voted for Jack Layton. But they also voted for a change," she says. "They didn't want the Bloc any more, and they certainly didn't support the Conservatives. As for the Liberals, they turned off Quebeckers with their scandals."

Turmel does not think last May's success in Quebec was a flash in the pan.

"There were a lot of new voters last May, and that made a difference," she argues.

She recognizes that there are significant cultural differences between Quebec and English Canada, and that the reasons for voting NDP vary from region to region.

But she sees the party making great progress in Canada outside Quebec.

"We are gaining ground in English Canada, now," she enthuses, "especially in B.C."

Principles or power?

Even if the NDP has not always been a major political force in Quebec, Turmel says she has considered it her party from an early age.

"All my life I was a New Democrat. My father was an employer -- but he was a social democrat, concerned about poverty and inequality."

As for the eternal New Democratic question as to which is more important, power or principles -- for Turmel, the answer comes quickly and without hesitation:

"My principles. I would never sacrifice my principles for power. Take abortion. The NDP's position is now the same as mine, in favour of a woman's right to choose. To gain power I would not change my position on that. No. I am not for power at any price."

Conservative answers are "very far from reality"

Turmel is troubled by the current mood in a House of Commons riddled with angst over robocalls.

"It is regrettable that we cannot talk about so many other real problems in the House," Turmel complains, "but we are talking about the right of Canadians to vote. Democracy is at stake in this discussion."

And what does she think of the quality of the answers Canadians get from the Conservative government?

"First of all," she exclaims, "they do not give answers on anything. And what they do say is very far from reality. I fear the people will be disillusioned by this. I hope we can regain the confidence of Canadians in their system by the time of the next election."

In the end, Nycole Turmel is satisfied that she accomplished what she set out to do -- which was to build a solid, effective and cohesive Official Opposition Caucus.

As for her future role, in her words: "I will let the new leader determine what I am to do!"

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