The new leader of the federal NDP was a card-carrying member of the Bloc Québécois for more than four years and quit the sovereigntist party only last January, one month before she announced plans to run as a key member of Jack Layton’s team in Quebec, documents show.
Nycole Turmel was chosen last week to lead the Official Opposition during Mr. Layton’s absence, and revelations about her long-standing sovereigntist ties are expected to fuel concerns in federalist circles about her commitment to national unity. In addition, Ms. Turmel’s recent support for the Bloc will prompt questions about ongoing ties between the NDP’s massive contingent of rookie MPs from Quebec and the province’s secessionist movement.
An NDP spokesman said Ms. Turmel took a Bloc membership “to support a friend.”
“We are happy that she chose to run under the banner of the NDP, the party that best represents her values and is best positioned to build a better Canada,” said NDP spokesman Karl Bélanger.
Asked about her political leanings during the last federal election, Ms. Turmel said she is a “federalist with social values.”
With Mr. Layton out of action indefinitely while he fights cancer, the NDP is facing one of the toughest periods in its recent history, and can expect to be constantly challenged by the governing Conservatives on party policy and the political background of Ms. Turmel.
According to information obtained by The Globe and Mail, the 68-year-old became a member of the Bloc Québécois in December, 2006, the year she retired as president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. She sent back her membership card to the Bloc on Jan. 19 of this year in a signed letter to then-Bloc MP Carole Lavallée.
“Enclosed is my Bloc Québécois membership card, which I wish to cancel. I wish to state that my request has nothing to do with the party’s policies, I am doing this for personal reasons,” Ms. Turmel wrote.
She then wished “good luck” to Ms. Lavallée, who went on to be defeated by an NDP candidate in the May 2 general election.
In addition to her membership in the Bloc, Ms. Turmel made four donations totalling $235 to the party between 2006 and 2011, according to party records. The donations, which ranged from $35 to $100, were not made public because they are under the $200 threshold for disclosure by political parties.
Ms. Turmel was presented as the NDP candidate in the traditionally federalist riding of Hull-Aylmer at the end of February, one month before the NDP united with the other opposition parties to bring down the Conservative government.
She easily beat the Liberal incumbent in the riding by 23,000 votes on May 2, largely on the strength of her past role as leader of the country’s biggest public-sector union. Mr. Layton also made a number of appearances at her side before the vote.
When Ms. Turmel officially took over temporarily from Mr. Layton last week, she faced questions about PSAC’s 2006 endorsement of Bloc candidates as being “willing to co-operate with PSAC in furthering our causes.” Ms. Turmel responded that the move was based on the Bloc’s positions on social justice issues, not Quebec sovereignty.
Ms. Turmel began her involvement with PSAC during a 1980 strike by 50,000 federal government workers. She quickly moved up the ranks of the union, and was acting president in the late 1990s when Ottawa announced its plans to settle a long-standing pay equity dispute with its female workers. The $3-billion settlement was one of the high points in Ms. Turmel’s PSAC career, which ended in 2006.
Ms. Turmel was seen as one of the NDP’s star candidates in this year’s general election, in which 59 NDP candidates won in Quebec and 44 in the other nine provinces.
Shortly after leading his party to a second-place finish on May 2, Mr. Layton hesitated at first to reiterate his traditional support for a simple majority of 50-per-cent plus one in a referendum as the level of support needed to launch negotiations on the secession of Quebec. The incident was seen as evidence of the tough balancing act facing Mr. Layton as the leader of a pan-Canadian party that had suddenly replaced the Bloc as the main political force from Quebec in the House of Commons.
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly stated that Ms. Turmel had been a member of the Bloc for five years. Her membership lasted four years and one month. This online version has been corrected.