BORN: Orangeville, Ontario • 13 July 1878
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 28 January 1941
There once was a time when the Canadian public service was seen as a high calling both by its employees and by the citizens they served. No single person created this reputation out of the morass of patronage that had characterized the civil service until the 1920s.
But by common consent, Dr O.D. Skelton is hailed as the key figure in this transformation.The son of a schoolteacher, Oscar Douglas Skelton was an earnest, dedicated student. He won entry to Queen’s University on scholarship in 1896, and over the next four years he took all the prizes as well as a bachelor of arts and a master of arts.
In 1900 he went to the University of Chicago for graduate work, but soon left for England—where, passing the tough examinations, he won entry to the Indian civil service. He decided not to accept appointment and moved instead to Philadelphia, where he worked for The Boohlovers Magazine.
In 1905, married and with his wife pregnant, Skelton returned to Chicago to finish his course work in politics and economics. He received his doctorate for a critical study of socialism in 1908. Already teaching at Queen’s, he soon became the John A. Macdonald Professor of Politics and Economics and established a reputation as a good teacher and scholar.
He published his dissertation on socialism, wrote massive biographies of Sir Alexander Galt and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, dashed off potboilers,and produced a flood of scholarly and popular articles. In an era when even fewer professors published than today,Skelton stood out.
A strong nationalist in an era when British imperialism attracted most of his compatriots, Skelton worked for the Liberal Party during the 1911 free trade election; he opposed conscription in 1917; and he became increasingly interested in foreign policy and the “need” for Canada to recognize that, after the Great War, it was a North American nation, not a British colony.
A speech that called for Canada to make its own foreign policy impressed the new prime minister, Mackenzie King, in 1922, and a year later Skelton accompa¬ nied King to the Imperial Conference as his closest adviser. The two men destroyed the idea of a centralized imperial foreign policy and laid the groundwork for a Commonwealth united only by the crown.
Two years later, King made Skelton undersecretary of state for external affairs, the senior bureaucrat responsible for creating and running Canadian foreign policy.External Affairs was tiny and ill-equipped to cope with the problems of the interwar years.
Skelton began to recruit bright university graduates of “all-round ability, capable of performing in widely different assignments at short notice,” both directly and through competitive examinations. He brought in able young men like Hume Wrong, Lester Pearson, and Norman Robertson, and he soon recognized that other departments needed help too.
He persuaded his former student and Queen’s colleague Clifford Clark to become deputy minister of finance, and Skelton and Clark were responsible for the appointment ofGraham Towers as governor of the Bank of Canada.
Working together to recruit the best available talent, these three built the public service and gave it its high standing, while their officers carried on the founders’ traditions of hard work and integrity into the 1960s.For his part, Skelton served King with great skill and faithfulness until the Liberal defeat in 1930.
The new Tory prime minister, R.B. Bennett, was suspicious of the Grit- appointee Skelton and planned to sack him. But Bennett quickly discovered that Skelton could answer his questions, provide shrewd advice, and do his duties with high compe¬ tence.
The undersecretary remained, and the principle that senior bureaucrats should have tenure was reinforced. Skelton-preferred King and his policies, but he served Bennett loyally until the Depression and the 1935 election returned King to power.
No great administrator, Skelton remained what he had always been—an intellectual in the bureaucracy. He could understand why many Canadians felt a loyalty to Britain, no matter how London’s policies wavered and veered, but, with his “incurable Canadianism,” he instinctively preferred that Canada create its own course.
He was an isolationist, a North American, certain that Britain would drag the country into war for Whitehall’s interests, not Ottawa’s, and fearful that this involvement would divide French and English Canada once more. King agreed with some of Skelton’s reasoning, but as a politician he knew he had to get elected.
That meant keeping the support of Quebec and not alienating those English-speaking Canadians who retained imperial loyalties. King succeeded when he led a united Canada into the war in 1939, but the new world war broke Skelton’s heart.
His health had begun to fail in the late 1930s as he laboured under his enormous workload. The coming of a war in which he did not truly believe added to his burdens, and in January 1941, while driving home for lunch, Skelton suffered a massive stroke and died at the wheel of his car.
The creator of the modern Canadian public service was loved by those who worked with him and for him. Many in government and in the country did not agree with his views, but all understood that he had died in his country’s service. He left a legacy of diligent, disciplined competence that helped immeasurably in winning Canada’s war and in shaping the peace that followed.