"C'est tough," Robert Chisholm says of his English-only bid for the leadership of a party that counts more than half of its seats from Quebec.

The NDP leadership contender doesn't yet speak French, which was on full display during the candidates' first debate, but he is learning the language and hopes his unilingualism won't hold him back in the contest.

"This is really difficult for me. I have not had that many opportunities to speak French and I'm working at it so hard," Chisholm said in an interview this week.

The Nova Scotia native began learning French as soon as he was elected to the House of Commons in May, before the leadership contest was triggered by Jack Layton's death in August. The new MP, who represents Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, says there's "no question" that the NDP's next leader should be able to communicate in both of Canada's official languages and that he's committed to learning French.

But Chisholm says he's hoping his leadership experience will outweigh his language deficiencies when it comes to his own résumé. You can learn a language, he suggests, but you can't learn leadership.

'This is more than a language contest. This is about leadership' —NDP MP Robert Chisholm

If French is so important though, why didn't he start learning it earlier in his career?

"I didn't have the opportunity," Chisholm responded, adding that he makes no apologies for his background before arriving in Ottawa.

He grew up and has always worked in a province where French isn't widely spoken. He first worked for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, then was elected as a New Democrat MLA and was consumed with building his party, eventually becoming its leader in Nova Scotia and raising it to Official Opposition. He and his wife Paula also had a young daughter when Chisholm began his political career.

"I've been very clear that I don't speak French, I'm learning how to speak French. I'm not apologizing for it, I'm expressing it, I'm making that clear. I went into this race, there was no criteria that said you have to be bilingual, otherwise I wouldn't have paid my $15,000, because I'm not," said Chisholm.

The 54-year-old says he has no intention of pulling out of the race because of it. 

"This is more than a language contest. This is about leadership. I bring that experience to the table," he said.

Politics at the dinner table

Chisholm said he entered politics because he decided early on in life that whatever he did, he wanted to make a difference. He grew up in a household where politics — conservative politics — were discussed around the dinner table and he said he learned about issues of fairness and inequity from an early age.

He joined the NDP and in 1990 was asked to consider running in a by-election. He agreed and won it in 1991, joining Nova Scotia's legislature as the MLA for Halifax Atlantic. In 1996, he won his party's leadership and in the 1998 election he helped his party jump from 4 to 19 seats and into Official Opposition status.

Chisholm said he can apply the lessons he learned in Nova Scotia to the federal NDP as it finds itself as the Official Opposition for the first time. He said he knows how to attract more voters, how to grow support and solidify it. It involves being focused and disciplined as a party and communicating clearly to voters what the party stands for and what it would do if it were in government, Chisholm said.

mi-chisholm-01731619

Chisholm spoke English during the French portion of the first leadership debate Dec. 4. He is currently taking lessons with a French tutor. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Chisholm says the NDP's platform for the spring election was a solid one that he stands behind, though he says the party has some work to do on its trade and economic policies. He was appointed trade critic by Layton, a file he was thoroughly enjoying until he had to give it up according to the leadership race rules.

He also notes the party has to build more capacity at local riding levels, particularly in Western Canada.

"We have to do a much better job in places like Saskatchewan and Manitoba to pick up the vote and elect people. We have to beef up our constituencies," he said.

Chisholm hasn't yet released official policy documents as part of his campaign the way some of the other eight candidates have, but he says he has ideas and he's also interested in hearing suggestions from party members and other Canadians.

Chisholm proposes investment tax credit

He mentions tackling poverty, which means investing in things like affordable housing, education and skills training and child care. The NDP stands for higher corporate tax rates and that added revenue would help pay for some of those investments, Chisholm said.

He suggests the creation of an investment tax credit to help "get the private sector off those bags of money that are in their bank accounts right now." It would benefit the economy if big companies invested more, while at the same time a tax credit would help cushion the blow of a higher tax rate, he said.

Chisholm said he would also like to see an overall review of Canada's tax system because it's become too complicated and there are too many ways for people to avoid paying their fair share.

One of his rivals, Brian Topp, has proposed raising income tax on Canada's highest earners, but Chisholm isn't on board with that idea.

"I think that's an easy place to go. I'm not convinced that his proposal will achieve what it is he's setting out to do," said Chisholm. A review of the tax regime would help determine how best to ensure everyone is paying their fair share, he said.

"We need to make sure that people in low income, people on welfare and on different types of assistance are not receiving disincentives in the system to get gainfully employed," he added.

Chisholm said his departure from provincial politics in 2003 was partly driven by wanting to spend more time with his family. He had stepped down as leader in 2000, following the 1999 election where the NDP dropped 8 seats. During that campaign it was revealed Chisholm had been convicted of drunk driving when he was 19 years old.

After leaving politics, he went to work with CUPE again for six more years. He and his wife then started their own consulting business and when the 2011 federal election was triggered Chisholm said the time was right to enter the political fray once again.

"I got back into politics this year because I have an undying optimism that politics can make a difference and that government matters," he said.

"I've been through the good, the bad and the ugly. I have that experience. With my passion for public service and my commitment, I think that experience could be of some help to help direct the government in ways that will help build stronger communities," said Chisholm.