Following the death of Jack Layton, the role of the Leader of the Opposition fell to the second woman to ever hold the post, Nycole Turmel. She had been chosen as the interim leader a month earlier, while Layton battled a second cancer following the biggest victory in the history of the NDP in the 2011 election.
The story of Nycole Turmel begins in Ste-Marie-de-Beauce, Quebec, where she was born on Sept. 1, 1942, to Laval and Emilia Turmel. This francophone community was where her father ran a dairy called Laiterie Turmel. Her father was also a city councilor, and politics was always important to the family.
In 1960, Turmel would marry and leave the community to settle at Alma, Quebec. Her and her husband would have three children until they separated, and then Turmel became a single mother.
In 1977, Turmel began to work as an employment counsellor assistant and typist for the regional office of the Canada Employment Centre. It was working there that would inspire her to become active in unions. She was a recently divorced mother with three children, and she was shocked by the lack of communication between workers and managers. She would say quote:
“I got involved in the union because of the injustices I was seeing.”
She often saw clerical and regulatory employees, typically women, being treated unfairly. One example of this was when female regulatory employees received less overtime reimbursement for their meals than other male-dominated employee groups.
In 1979, Turmel would be elected to a position in the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union. At the time, the union was dominated by males, and she would say it was not easy for women to participate in the union.
As time went on, she would begin to hold more senior positions on the local and senior level of the union, eventually becoming the vice president of the national organization in the 1980s.
In 1980, 40,000 Clerical and Regulatory union members went on strike in what was the first big strike in the federal government. This strike was not sanctioned by the national executive of the union. Turmel would say quote:
“Women workers were being told by our union not to take strike action against an unfair employer. The male-dominated leadership of the time was out of touch with the reality faced by CRs in our workplace. We were outraged by the way the union was treating us, but we were even more outraged at the employer.”
The strike was a challenge for Turmel as she raised her three children. Many of the strikers were women in the same situation but eventually the union leadership accepted the strike. The strike ended after 15 days with the workers gaining bonus payments, improved parental leave and wage increases.
When Free Trade was the main topic of discussion in Canada during the 1988 federal election, Turmel would speak out against its impact on workers. She would say quote:
“The government itself has admitted that as many as half a million jobs could be lost to free trade. Those of us who work daily with the unemployed know how severe the problems are. We should tell Mulroney we can’t afford any more Scheffervilles.”
Schefferville, Quebec used to be a major mining community with 5,000 residents. In 1982, Brian Mulroney, then president of the Iron Ore Company, stopped mining in the area. This caused 4,000 of the non-Indigenous inhabitants to leave the community and today the population of the town is 213.
In 1989, Turmel campaigned to try to keep the Mount Apica Base open but when that became impossible, she attempted to get the displaced employee’s jobs elsewhere without losing benefits.
After 30 years in Alma, Turmel would leave to settle in Gatineau in 1990. She would run for a national elected position, the president, in the union stating quote:
“It is time a woman ran the component, and I am ready.”
The move to Gatineau was spurred on after she lost the election. She would say quote:
In 1991, she was elected to the executive of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
That same year, she would lead 10 other female Public Service Alliance of Canada members as they walked into the office of Mary Collins, the Minister for The Status of Women, in an effort to stop the government from blocking pay equity. She would say quote:
“We wanted to tell her that $500 was no solution to pay equity.”
That $500 was the signing bonus offer to 30,000 lower-paid public servants.
Collins refused to see the women, stating the action was not the way to deal with issues.
In 1994, she became the first executive vice-president, remaining in that role until 1997.
She would say quote:
“I worked a lot on our pay equity struggle. I was on the executive when we decided not to accept the government’s offer to settle and to wait for the court decisions. Many members were really upset with us. Years later we won the big fight and a lot of money for federal employees. This came with a recognition, long overdue, of the value of their work.”
In 1997, Turmel became the national executive vice president, remaining in the role until 2000. She would also serve as acting president briefly in 1999.
On Oct. 1999, she would have one of her biggest successes when it was ruled that the Liberal government owed 200,000 mostly female workers 13 years of back pay, plus interest, to wipe out the wage gap between men and women in the public service. The average worker was owed about $30,000. The decision would cost the government $3.3 to $3.6 billion. Turmel would say quote:
“Finally, the work of women throughout Canada is being recognized and everyone shall be equal.”
On May 5, 2000, she became the first woman to ever be elected president of the PSAC in its 34 years history.
She would say upon her election quote:
“I’m committed to accountability…I have already stated my support for cost containment and my commitment to put in place the checks and balances to make sure we live within our approved budget.”
She would also state that she would tackle the Canadian Alliance, calling the party a threat to equality.
She was re-elected in 2003 and would state quote:
“We are breaking new ground and I’m quite happy to see how progressive this union is and open to change and doing new things.”
She would leave her position in 2006 rather than run for re-election. During her time as president, the organization made a shift towards social activism.
She would also serve on the executive committee of the Canadian Labour Congress.
As leader of the PSAC, the National Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis Network was created. A Social Justice Fund was also created to advance work in anti-poverty initiatives and other causes.
In 2006, Turmel received the Mitchell Park Award for Meritorious Service.
After she left the PSAC, Turmel became the vice president of the Ombudsmen office of the City of Gatineau, serving from 2007 to 2011.
In 2009, she would run in the Gatineau municipal election but lost by 96 votes.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Turmel was a member of the NDP and even served as the Associate President of the Party under leader Alexa McDonough. She would also moderate the leadership selection process that saw Jack Layton become leader in 2003.
In 2011, Turmel would run for the first time in a federal election. In her campaign in Hull-Aylmer, she would run on a campaign of local issues, including protection for Gatineau Park and a ferry between Kanata and Aylmer. She would state quote:
“I know what people in Hull-Aylmer are going through. They need some help; they need some support.”
In an upset, she would defeat the Liberal incumbent by 23,000 votes becoming the first non-Liberal to win in the riding since 1914. With 61 per cent of the vote, Turmel was surprised by her showing. She would state quote:
Soon after the election, she was named the Chair of the NDP National Caucus.
On July 25, 2011, Layton announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence for health reasons and Turmel was appointed as the interim leader, getting the unanimous support of the NDP caucus.
In his speech to Canada, Layton would state quote:
“I suggest that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel be named interim leader during this period. Ms. Turmel enjoys unanimous support as the national chair of our parliamentary caucus. She is an experienced national leader in both official languages and she will do an excellent job as our national interim leader.”
Sources that were close to Layton stated that Turmel was chosen because she was bilingual, experienced and would not ruffle too many feathers in the caucus. She was also not believed to harbour leadership aspirations and would not create internal divisions while Layton was on leave.
Many were shocked that a rookie MP was chosen to be interim leader only a couple months after the election, but others applauded the decision. John Gordon, president of the PSAC, stated quote:
“She is new as an MP, but she is certainly not new to the party. We were together at the leadership convention when Jack was elected, so Nycole knows a lot of the caucus members and has dealt with them on several occasions.”
Others stated the decision to elevate her to interim leader was brilliant and was an endorsement by Layton to keep the playing field level in the party and create stability over the short-term.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May would state quote:
“Her capable leadership will allow Jack to put his focus on his health so that he can then rejoin us in Parliament.”
Turmel stated she was honoured by the selection and wished Layton a speedy recovery.
Before long, there was criticism about her bilingualism due to her English speaking, and her brief political resume. Another criticism came about when it was found she briefly held membership in the Bloc Quebecois. When she was the president of the PSAC, she encouraged members of the union to vote for candidates, Liberal, NDP and Bloc, that had been endorsed by the union for their progressive values. In December 2006, she would take out a membership in the Bloc Quebecois for her friend Carole Lavellee, who was running in the party. As a member of the Bloc Quebecois, she would donate $235. In 2011, she cancelled her membership with the Bloc Quebecois and filed papers to run as a New Democratic Party. She would state that she had no separatist views and had voted No in both the 1980 and 1995 referendums. She also stated she never voted for the Bloc, and she refused a request by Gilles Duceppe to run as a Bloc candidate because she disagreed with Quebec sovereignty.
As interim leader, she would reach out to English Canada, making trips to Newfoundland and elsewhere.
Following the death of Layton on Aug. 22, she became the second female Leader of the Opposition after Deborah Grey. In his last letter, Layton would state quote:
“I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.”
On her role as Leader of the Opposition, Turmel would state quote:
“We have an obligation, that’s what he gave us as his legacy. It is important for us to continue that, and Canadians are entitled to it.”
She would say of Jack Layton quote:
Turmel would not move into Stornoway, the official residence of the Opposition leader, but she would entertain there and sleep over on occasion.
At the funeral of Layton, she would read a biblical passage.
On March 24, 2012, she gave up leadership of the party to Thomas Mulcair, who was elected leader in a leadership election.
On Nov. 8, 2012, she introduced a motion to protect Gatineau Park. The act would have established the boundaries of the park and several environmental groups supported the bill. The Gatineau Park Protection Committee did not support it, feeling it fell short. The GPPC stated the bill placed the interests of the park’s private landowners rather than the public. The bill was defeated by the Conservative government on April 30, 2014. The Conservatives stated the bill was too restrictive.
For the remainder of her term in the House of Commons, she would serve as the Opposition Whip in the shadow cabinet of the NDP.
In 2015, she would lose her re-election bid as the Liberals surged back from third place to once again lead Canada.
Information from Macleans, Alberni Valley Times, The Ottawa Citizen, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, National Post, Whitehorse Daily Star, The Windsor Star,