With this week’s unfortunate news that newly minted Leader of the Official Opposition Jack Layton would take a leave of absence to be treated for cancer, the NDP found itself caught in a national firestorm with the selection of Nycole Turmel as interim leader. Turmel is a 20-year member of the NDP, a former union leader, and a declared federalist Francophone. The course of her career is evidence of her commitment to her political convictions and her thoughts on the state of Canada. It is her short, now regrettable, affiliation with another federal party that has vaulted her into a glaring national spotlight.
The revelation that the new interim Official Opposition leader was once a member of the Bloc Québécois, at the same time as she was a member of the NDP, yielded an understandably swift uproar. English Canadians are notoriously sensitive when it comes to sovereigntist parties like the Bloc, seeing them purely as vehicles to destroy the country. While this may seem true in black and white, it is a fundamental truth of Canadian politics that everything involving the relationship between Quebec and the federal government has always been coloured in shades of grey.
The Bloc’s raison d’être was not only to promote sovereignty for Quebec, but also to protect the province’s interests and values in Parliament. This is an important subtlety – even a casual conversation with a politically savvy person from Quebec illuminates the complex reasons many people had for supporting the Bloc for so many years. For two decades, the Bloc was seen as the protector of the deep values of liberal social justice that define Quebec’s identity. It was the only viable party in Quebec that promoted this type of political vision until the NDP rise earlier this year. This is the aspect of the Bloc that Turmel has stated she supported; the same kind of values that have been the basis of her nearly two-decade affiliation with the New Democrats. For the first time this year, a federalist party of this stripe was seen as viable in Quebec – and the results speak for themselves.
It is a general policy that political parties forbid members from holding memberships in other parties; Turmel claims that she was unaware of this, joined the Bloc to support a friend, and promptly terminated her connections when she chose to become a public candidate for the NDP. Although her missteps are, admittedly, clumsy mistakes, the point remains – she chose to run for the NDP. For all the cries of discontent and secret sympathies with those who would break the country apart, that fact stands out clear above the rest. If she truly believed in a Canada without Quebec, she could have easily run as a candidate for the Bloc, the avowed separatist party that was far above the NDP in the Quebec opinion polls leading up to the May 2 federal election. The argument that you cannot support a party without personally agreeing with every one of its policies as a package seems noble, but is unrealistic. The nuances in any one person’s political views are as unique as a fingerprint, shaped by the course of events and experiences, and a lifetime of learning and forming opinions. Every person is a political party unto themselves, in a way. Turmel has since stated, over and over, that it was the Bloc’s social policies that she supported, and was always uneasy with the sovereigntist aspect of its platform.
Ultimately, nobody but Nycole Turmel knows what lies in her heart. We must take her at her word and accept that she has at least been honest and forthcoming about the situation as it unfolded, fully aware of the criticisms it would bring upon her. She has repeatedly and vehemently affirmed her belief in a united Canada. We should now put this matter aside and allow her to focus on leading the Official Opposition, a job we may be very grateful she is filling. Perhaps the reason her political opponents were so swift to question her allegiances to the country is that they fear her potential to bring Canadians together – under her NDP banner. It is a curiously complex situation.
It is rare that Canadians see a woman in a position of visible power at the federal level, let alone a tough-talking French-Canadian one. Turmel’s accomplishments and potential far outshine the stumbles that have come to light this week. She has the opportunity to set an example for all Canadians, young and old − and most especially the country’s young women − that hard work and years of service can pay great dividends and command respect. It is encouraging to see a different sort of person on the podium than those we’re familiar with. The course of her life, like anyone’s, has had some bumps but she now sits directly across from the Prime Minister’s seat in the House of Commons. She will hopefully be a commanding, inspiring presence in Canadian politics from this point on.