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'We proved them wrong,' departing NDP chief says of her critics

Nycole Turmel is all smiles as an Ottawa news conference wrapping up her term as Interim NDP Leader on March 21, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Rueters

Nycole Turmel has spent her final days as Leader of the Official Opposition preparing for the way for the person who will succeed her.

Ms. Turmel and her staff are organizing a cross-country tour for the winner of the NDP race that ends Saturday. The plan is to move quickly to get Canadians acquainted with the new Leader – and to get him or her acquainted with Canadians.

There was no similar advance work done for Ms. Turmel, a former union leader who was elected for the first time last spring. She took the job at the request of Jack Layton as he was fighting a new and more pernicious form of cancer than the one that afflicted him in 2009.

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Ms. Turmel's turn as head of a party that had suddenly become Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition for the first time it its history was supposed to last just two months until Mr. Layton could recover. He never did. And as she departs Stornoway this week, Ms. Turmel has become the longest-serving woman to hold the post in Canadian history.

There have been some bumps along the way. There were questions about her commitment to federalism. There have been complaints about her ability to make points forcefully in English. She has lost one of her MPs to the Liberals.

But overall, Ms. Turmel told reporters Wednesday, she is proud of the job she and her caucus have done since Mr. Layton succumbed to his disease last August. "When Jack passed away, the same people said the NDP had no future. But we got to work and we proved them wrong," she said.

Over the past seven months, the majority Conservative government has been convinced to support four New Democrat motions – one to keep good jobs in Canada, one to improve first-nations education, one to prevent future drug shortages, and one to bolster the investigatory powers of Elections Canada.

"During my term we have gotten results for people. We have put pressure on the Harper government," Mr. Turmel said. "Every single time we took on the Conservatives and won."

Which is a bit of a stretch. The Conservative government has pushed through many measures New Democrats did not support, and made a habit of cutting off debate to limit opposition criticism.

But Ms. Turmel and her caucus have not been rendered completely ineffective by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his majority – and that, in itself, is saying something.

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The new leader of Ms. Turmel's party will undoubtedly become a quick target of Tory attack. Just this week the Conservatives unleashed television ads at Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae. When asked if her party will fight fire with fire, Ms. Turmel said: "The Tories will do whatever they want to do, for us it is promote the new leader."

The NDP leader will also be heading a party that has lost some ground since Mr. Layton's death. Successive polls have shown the Bloc Québécois is resurging in Quebec at the expense of the New Democrats.

Ms. Turmel said that is not a concern. "I said it many times: Polls are polls. We have three years to build and be ready for 2015."

But there are also divisions within the NDP that have been created by a leadership race that suddenly turned more acrimonious in its final days. Ms. Turmel said caucus unity must be job No. 1.

"There's always a danger when there's change, when there's a new vision, there will always be division, that has to be recognized," Ms. Turmel said. "It will be up to the new leader in his or her message and in his or her approach to determine and to ensure that the caucus is a priority."

Her departure from the party's top job will leave more time to attend to riding issues, said the Quebec MP, who admits there are some aspects of the job that have been difficult.

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"The stress a leader feels regarding the emotions, the physical stress, I won't miss that. The stresses are everywhere, you guys are included," she told reporters. "You always have to be one step ahead of the game, one step ahead of the news."

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