NDP interim Leader Nycole Turmel thanked Canadians for their support Tuesday following the death of Jack Layton and she vowed to carry on his work.
"We are mourning today a great Canadian and a great leader," Turmel told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons. "He was a friend, he was a colleague for many of us, if not all of us."
Turmel said the NDP's thoughts are with Layton's wife and fellow NDP MP, Olivia Chow, Layton's children and the rest of their family. In making her first public comments since Layton's death early Monday, Turmel said she and her colleagues are "overwhelmed" by the reaction of Canadians.
"I have to say, on behalf of the NDP, from coast to coast, I want to thank all Canadians for their wishes and really, their love for Jack," Turmel said, adding that the support is helping NDP MPs continue their fight to make Canada a better country.
"We promise we'll carry on," said Turmel.
She also thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his "generous" offer to hold a state funeral to honour Layton. It will take place Saturday in Toronto and Layton's body will also lie in state on Parliament Hill on Wednesday and Thursday.
Turmel said Saturday will be a painful and difficult day. "We have to do it and we will do it," she said, "We represent Canadians but Canadians will be there for us too."
Turmel vows to stay on
Turmel said the NDP wants to spend this week grieving and then will turn its attention to organizing a leadership convention in the coming weeks. She said she is committed to carrying on as the temporary Official Opposition leader until a permanent one is chosen, as Layton had requested.
"Mr. Layton asked me, remember, in July to be the interim leader. He recommended in his letter that I stay as interim leader," she said. "I will do my job until we have a new leader.
Turmel's comments were the first she has made publicly since Layton passed away early Monday morning at his home in Toronto. Turmel, a Quebec MP who was elected to the House of Commons for the first time on May 2, had released a written statement yesterday.
Turmel was handpicked by Layton to replace him following his second cancer diagnosis last month. He announced at a press conference on July 25 that he was taking time off for treatment and was aiming to be back at work in time for Parliament's fall session. It begins Sept. 19.
Layton's recommendation that Turmel step in as temporary Official Opposition leader was accepted by the NDP caucus and party's executive.
In a farewell letter written by Layton on the weekend and made public hours after his death Monday, the NDP leader said he wanted Turmel to carry on with the opposition leader duties and that his successor should be chosen as early as possible in 2012.
"We'll do our best to respect his wishes," Turmel said.
The interim leader said Layton's charisma was undeniable and she acknowledged that his personality was a driving force behind the NDP's growing popularity. She signalled confidence, however, that the party would continue its upward swing without Layton as its leader.
"Jack was the image, we all know that, but ... why we ran with Jack Layton is because we believe in what he was presenting, so we will carry on and defend that," she said. Turmel said Canadians voted for the NDP's vision as a whole and what the party represents.
She said the NDP is a strong team and is ready to work to carry on the vision represented by Layton. Turmel didn't deny, however, that she has a big task ahead of her in leading that team.
"Let's be clear: we will not replace Jack Layton. Jack Layton was a great leader ... the shoes are really big to fill," she said.
The party's biggest challenge according to the interim leader, is preparing for the fall session of Parliament, which gets underway in less a month. The NDP is scheduled to hold a caucus meeting in Quebec City on Sept.13 and 14 but the party may decide to change the dates.
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