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NDP caucus pays tribute to their ailing leader Add to ...

Former union boss Nycole Turmel is about to be named interim leader of the federal New Democrats but the caucus of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons is not ready to let go of Jack Layton.

NDP MPs met Wednesday morning at Parliament Hill's Centre Block to discuss tackling the road ahead without the man who has been the face of the federal New Democrats for the past eight years.

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Mr. Layton, who announced at a news conference Monday that he was stepping aside temporarily to fight his new and undisclosed type of cancer, addressed the caucus by Internet link from his home in Toronto.

He stayed online for the duration of the two-hour meeting, watching the proceedings from his computer even though members of his caucus could not see him in return. One by one, the MPs offered their best wishes and urged him a speedy recovery. Some read messages from constituents. Many pleaded with him to take as long as he needs before contemplating his return to politics.

Mr. Layton, who has said he plans to be in his seat in the House of Commons when Parliament resumes on Sept. 19, restated his desire to have Ms. Turmel, a rookie MP from Gatineau, Que., take over as leader until his return.

The members of the caucus gave that recommendation their unanimous support. The decision must still be ratified by the party's national council, which will meet on Thursday. But it would seem unlikely for members of that body to go against the wishes of Mr. Layton and the elected MPs.

"We have overwhelming unanimous support for the recommendation that Nycole be our interim leader," deputy leader Libby Davies told reporters when the meeting ended.

Ms. Turmel, who was a long-time union leader, said she was "overwhelmed" by the support of her caucus. "I am also ready to take on the job as long as the federal council accepts the recommendation of the caucus," she said. "We have a strong caucus. We have a strong leader in Jack Layton. We want to give him the time to rest, to come back in September."

Despite the rushed nature of Wednesday's meeting, all but about a dozen of the 103 New Democrat MPs were able to attend. One of those who did not make it was Mr. Layton's wife, Olivia Chow, who was at home with her husband.

The New Democrat MPs emerged from the meeting professing to be more united than ever and ready to take on the Conservative government when Parliament resumes. But huge challenges lie ahead.

Nearly two-thirds of the caucus members are new to politics. Mr. Layton's own personal charisma has been the driver of the party's success. And his new illness, which comes a year and a half after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and four months after surgery to repair a fractured hip, has been an emotional blow to those who have come to rely on him.

Dave Christopherson, an MP from Hamilton, said those inside the caucus meeting expressed "the mixed emotions, the pride, the worry, the confidence, the fear" that other Canadians felt as they watched a gaunt Mr. Layton rasp out his intention on Monday to let someone else do his job.

To New Democrats, Mr. Layton is a brother, Mr. Christopherson said.

"It's hard when a family member is facing this kind of situation, but Jack's strong," he said. "There was sadness, there was a little bit of tears, there was laughter. But most importantly there was optimism, optimism for Jack that he will get strong, that he will heal, that he will be back, and optimism that we can hold the fort together until he does return."

Don Davies, who represents the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway for the New Democrats, said it was difficult to be in the room and not feel a sense of optimism. "It was just an unbelievable feeling of caring and concern and pulling for Jack to get better," he said.

Party president Brian Topp spoke with Mr. Layton before the caucus meeting.

"He was in great spirits, his voice was strong, he was in good humour," Mr. Topp said. "He was complaining that he should have done his press conference today. And he asked me to say that he was grateful for the thousands of messages that he has received in the past two days from Canadians across the country. He is drawing great power and spirit from them."

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