Nycole Turmel spoke to Jack Layton only once about taking over the leadership. It was last summer and she was visiting her daughter when the call came through.
"Jack got on the phone and his voice was already different," Ms. Turmel recalled in an interview this week, referring to the weakness caused by his illness. "Nycole, if you don't mind I will speak in English. It will be easier for me. And I said, 'Fine.'"
Ms. Turmel did a lot of listening, as Mr. Layton said he wanted her to take over the leadership until the House returned in September. He told her the doctors had "found something new."
"I need to take time off, and I need to take care of myself and make sure that I recover properly," he told her, she recalled. "I need you to do this. So I said, 'Okay, whatever you need, Mr. Layton, I will do it.'"
They never spoke again. Mr. Layton died in August, and Ms. Turmel, 69, a rookie MP, who had been elected only in May to her West Quebec riding, has been the interim leader since.
The two were professional colleagues – not great friends. And she was chosen because she was a bilingual woman with experience in managing a national labour union. As well, she had no ambition to become leader.
Still, from the very beginning it felt like an odd choice. Ms. Turmel attracted controversy because of her former ties to the separatist Bloc Québécois.
So far, she has received very mixed reviews. NDP support is dropping in Quebec, where the party broke through in the May election, winning 59 of 75 seats.
In addition, her English is sometimes difficult to understand as she leads off Question Period in the House of Commons. This has inevitably led to comparisons to former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, who was also criticized for his English.
Asked if she thinks her English is better than Mr. Dion's, she laughed loudly: "I don't want to compare. I will put it another way. I hope my English is improving.
"We should have a show – me and him ... in English," she joked.
As for the polls, she dismisses the plunge in Quebec. "Everything is my fault," she laughed. "Polls going up, polls going down ... I think it's normal. ... For me it's normal."
She said she is "proud" of what she's accomplished over the fall – the party is united, and New Democrat MPs left Ottawa "in great spirits" for the holidays.
And she argued that she was the first – even before Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae – to raise questions about the situation in Attawapiskat and about the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board. She believes, too, that the NDP held the government's feet to the fire on issues related to the economy, pensions and job creation.
Regardless, the bill to end the monopoly of the wheat board passed last week, and the government with its majority is moving ahead with another controversial bill – to scrap the gun registry and destroy the records, which is something Quebec and the NDP are railing against.
All she can do, Ms. Turmel said, is "trust people" to send messages to government MPs and ministers to complain.
As for the leadership race, she refuses to comment on whether the new leader should be from Quebec. But she admitted the party will "work really hard to keep our 59" MPs in Quebec. The aim is to win government in 2015.
Her wish list for 2012 is ambitious: improvement in the economy; a change of heart by the Conservative government on the Kyoto Accord; for the government to stop pushing bills through the Commons with time allocation and other measures in committee; and, of course, she is anticipating a new and permanent NDP leader.