NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel says she was stunned and speechless when Jack Layton asked her to fill in while he takes time off to battle cancer. 

"Emotions were big inside me, thinking that he had to leave for awhile... but after that, I said 'I'll do whatever you need,'" Turmel told Rosemary Barton on CBC's Power & Politics.

Layton recommended the Quebec MP take over the party's leadership on the same day he announced he was stepping down temporarily because of an unspecified cancer. Turmel was named interim leader at a meeting of the party's federal council Thursday, a day after Layton's recommendation was unanimously backed by the NDP caucus. Layton disclosed the diagnosis on Monday and said his goal is to resume his leadership duties in time for Parliament's fall session in September.

Turmel said she has an open mandate, and will serve as interim leader for as long as necessary. She doesn't expect Layton to advise her, as he will be focusing on his health, she said. 

The NDP's deputy leaders, Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies, have offered their full support, Turmel said, and she will be able to ask them for help at any time.  

"Our objective right now is to work on our agenda, to work for Canadians against this government. Our focus is to work to make sure Canadians are aware if there is a bad decision taken," she added.  

'Big shoes'

After she was confirmed as interim leader earlier Thursday, Turmel admitted she has "big shoes to fill" but defended her ability to substitute for Layton.

"I've never been prouder to be a New Democrat, and I've been at this for decades," Turmel told reporters, emphasizing her long history in the party despite only being elected as an MP for the first time this spring. She said it was Layton who convinced her to run for a seat in the House of Commons this past election.

Turmel said she is anxious to work with Layton again, adding she is honoured to replace him and has a strong team supporting her.

"I clearly have big shoes to fill but I'm also fortunate to be standing on such a solid foundation," the 68-year-old MP said.

The council met Thursday morning at a downtown Ottawa hotel, and at a news conference afterward Turmel wasted no time pushing the NDP's agenda and vowing that the party will be an effective opposition to the Conservative government. She said the party is focused now on preparing for the fall session.

Turmel says she's up to the job

While not a familiar face to Canadians, Turmel said that will change, adding that the fact she speaks English as a second language won't interfere with her carrying on the job. She will begin meeting Canadians from coast to coast this weekend, travelling first to Vancouver for that city's pride parade and then to St. John's.

"I believe that I'm strong enough to represent Canadians wherever they come from, and I believe I'm strong enough to represent the party policy and to make sure that I represent everybody," she said. "I believe I can do the job."

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NDP Leader Jack Layton is taking a leave of absence while he undergoes treatment for cancer for the second time. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))

Layton's revelation that he has a new form of cancer came as a surprise as did his choice of Turmel to fill in for him, given that she is a new face in the House of Commons. She has a long history with the NDP and was head of one of the country's biggest unions, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, but Turmel is an inexperienced parliamentarian.

She was nonetheless chosen by her fellow NDP MPs to be caucus chair, and they have backed her again this week to step in for Layton.

Turmel and other NDP MPs and officials have repeatedly been asked why an interim leader is necessary instead of relying on the two deputy leaders, Libby Davies and Thomas Mulcair, to carry the party through the rest of the summer.

"Mr. Layton decided it was better to have an interim leader, recommended that to the party, the party endorsed that," she said, adding that the federal council could have chosen to go another route.

"The council unanimously supported the decision, or the recommendation I should say, of Mr. Layton and appointed me as interim leader for two months. Mr. Layton will be back. That's the decision of the council and we all agree that's the best solution for now," she said.

Layton, whose wife Olivia Chow is also an MP, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009 and underwent treatment. He was well enough to fight the spring election campaign even though he was also still on the mend from a broken hip. He hasn't said what kind of cancer he is now facing and Turmel says his privacy should be respected.

"It is his decision not to say it and we have to respect his decision not to say it," said Turmel. "For us, as a party we have to be ready for the fall session and represent Canadians and making sure that our agenda and why we have been elected is carried on."

The bilingual MP for Hull-Aylmer is tasked with keeping the party focused during an emotional time and preparing them for the fall session of Parliament.

'The shock is still there.'—Yvon Godin, NDP MP

The majority of the NDP caucus is made up of rookie MPs who only had a few weeks to learn how to do their new jobs before Parliament rose for the summer. New Democrats, however, are emphasizing that they have a deep bench with many experienced MPs and that Layton has built a strong team that will be ready to battle the Conservative government's agenda.

The NDP MPs were brought back to Ottawa in the middle of the summer to deal with the sad news, many of whom learned it at the same time as other Canadians by watching Layton's press conference.

On Thursday, some said they were still absorbing the news of their leader's health setback.

"We're human beings — the shock is still there," said Yvon Godin.

Layton participated in the meetings Wednesday and Thursday via videoconference.

There has been a countrywide outpouring of support for the NDP leader, and Turmel said Thursday that he asked her to tell Canadians how much he appreciates it.

She said Layton is well known and loved for his personality, and she won't try to imitate it.

"He has great charisma, we all know that," she said, "And I don't intend to have the same charisma, but I have my own way to present things."

Liveblog: NDP federal council meeting

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