MONTREAL - Northern Manitoba MP Niki Ashton has become the ninth contestant to join the crowded race for the NDP leadership, after announcing her candidacy Monday in Montreal.

The multilingual 29-year-old is the youngest candidate, and just the second woman, to enter a bid to succeed the late Jack Layton.

Ashton, who speaks four languages, seamlessly switched from English to French on Monday as she fielded questions from reporters.

The first query fired the Churchill MP's way was: Why launch in Montreal?

"Well, Montreal is a pretty cool city," she replied in English.

Ashton then added, in French: "Quebec is really cool. For me, it's really important to not only respect, but reinforce the result we got here during the 2011 election."

Her bilingual Quebec kickoff comes as the topic of bilingualism in Canada's public service has been stirring up controversy in recent weeks -- with the appointment of a unilingual Supreme Court justice, auditor general and spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In the NDP leadership race, not all of the competitors can communicate in Canada's official languages, either.

The new 29-year-old candidate, meanwhile, speaks those official languages along with Greek and Spanish and has taken lessons in Russian, Turkish and Mandarin. She's currently working on her Cree.

When asked about the value of being able to speak French, Ashton noted it's a key asset on any leadership candidate's resume.

"I think it's something that's important, yes, as part of this race," said Ashton, who studied in French immersion while growing up in Thompson, Man.

"And important in building the bridges and the kind of co-operation we need to see."

She was also asked during her Montreal stop whether contestants who cannot express themselves comfortably in French should even be running in the NDP campaign.

"I think we're all (of the) understanding of the importance of speaking both official languages and we all have a different experience with that," Ashton said.

"For me, it's very important to be bilingual, and in my case multilingual, to be able to connect with many Canadians."

Ashton said Quebec, where the NDP won a surprising 59 seats in the May election, will be a critical battleground if the party wants to win the next federal election.

She also paid tribute to her late leader.

"I am part of the Jack Layton generation," said Ashton, who was first elected to the House of Commons in 2008.

Ashton, who plans to take her campaign to Calgary on Tuesday, said it's important to build on Layton's legacy and fight for things like equality, peace, the environment, diversity and the economy.

Ashton, who noted that she will be 33 years old during the 2015 election, touted her youth as an asset and cited ways in which a fresh perspective might benefit Canadian politics.

"Think new," she said. "New politics says that age is not a barrier... In new politics, a 33-year-old woman can be elected as your prime minister."

Though she offered few specifics on what the party would look like under her guidance, she did call Prime Minister Stephen Harper's politics "old" and described his agenda as one that divides Canadians.

Ashton joins other declared leadership hopefuls: Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, Romeo Saganash, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Martin Singh and Robert Chisholm.

Her modest campaign kickoff, which featured two Quebec MPs and about 20 supporters, lacked the pomp and star power of launches by bigger-name contenders, like former NDP president Brian Topp and the party's ex-deputy leader Thomas Mulcair.

Topp earned the support of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Mulcair had the backing of some 30 MPs -- or about half the NDP's Quebec caucus.

Rookie NDP MP Jean-Francois Larose, who came out in support of Ashton, said he'd like to see a young, dynamic woman like Ashton at the helm of the party.

"We're at that turning point where when people say that they want a change we can't just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk," said Larose, who represents the Montreal-area riding of Repentigny.

"Niki represents that change, so I support it 1,000 per cent."

He said many other MPs from several provinces also support Ashton's bid, though he declined to give names or a rough estimate of how many.