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Will Stos

O.D. Skelton: The Work of The World, 1923-1941 Edited by Norman Hillmer, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2013, 517p.

Although many civil servants will concur that their chosen profession has the potential to bring them much personal fulfillment, few would suggest they enter this field with visions of achieving great fame. Some might even argue that fame—or worse, notoriety—is exactly what civil servants are expected to avoid at all cost. Theirs is a working life confined mostly to obscurity while the ministers of their departments operate as the public face of their collective efforts, successes and failures.

With this in mind, it is refreshing to see an historian shine a light on the work of one civil servant whose counsel on foreign policy was routinely sought by both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers during a period of great international upheaval. Carleton University professor Norman Hillmer’s edited collection of Oscar Douglas Skelton’s official memoranda, diaries and letters provides readers with not only a portrait of a trusted civil servant, but also the man behind the memos. Hillmer’s informative introductory note presents a strong narrative foundation for the subsequent collection of annotated documents. Reproduced chronologically and divided by key events or periods, he provides readers with a window into the world of a biographer working his way through the archives.

When Skelton was recruited to the Department of External Affairs in 1923, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King deemed the new hire’s staunch anti-imperialism (at least with respect to the British Empire in Canada) and his proscriptions for an independent Canadian foreign policy to be a strong foundation for the country’s approach to external affairs. The new hire would almost immediately make his mark with a memorandum titled “Canada and the Control of Foreign Policy,” which King brought to his first Imperial Conference as prime minister.

Some historians have dismissed Skelton’s work on this document, which outlined Canada’s emerging foreign policy, as that of a partisan hack (he had been active in Liberal circles for some time and had previously worked with King at the end of Laurier’s government) and an effort which sought to solve problems that no longer existed in terms of British imperialist designs on the dominions and colonies. However, in his introductory note, Hillmer suggests that while it was clearly a partisan document, Skelton’s memorandum was a direct response to Britain’s continued insistence on “diplomatic unity” and deference to the British Foreign Office on important matters. Furthermore, he notes that Skelton’s interventions, which played a role in the dominions’ constitutional progress, were credited by South Africa’s prime minister as helping to make it “Canada’s conference.”

Hillmer’s thoughtful choice of annotations in these documents equips readers with information that provide context and colour. For instance, in an excerpt of the famous 1923 memorandum, Hillmer highlights a hand-written note of approval (“very good”) from Mackenzie King beside a passage noting that although each part of the Empire has its own distinct sphere of interests, these spheres occasionally intersect and some interests are shared. Other notes offer important historical explanation, introductions to key players or citations for further exploration.

Hillmer’s biographical sketch is careful to note that Skelton was “not anti-British, nor anti-empire. It was imperialism and the agents of imperialism that were his enemies” (p. 13). Indeed, Skelton’s world view saw Canada as British North America while Britain was British West Europe.

Despite his partisan background, Skelton continued to serve when Conservative R.B. Bennett formed a government in 1930. After some initial misgivings and clashes of opinion which led Bennett to consider firing him, Hillmer notes that Skelton was soon found to be indispensable.

As King’s Liberals returned to government, troubles in Europe pointed to the possibility of renewed military conflict. Skelton, fearing impending divisions in Canada, clearly favoured an isolationist policy in the lead-up to World War II and expressed disappointment when King stated that the possibility of Canada staying out of a British war with Germany was nil. Skelton suggested the wary attitude of Canada’s francophones was “really Canadian” (p. 44); yet he noted that a majority would support participation in war provided there was no conscription. The civil servant’s isolationist sympathies did not preclude him from acknowledging the likelihood of war and his views on conflict shifted as Germany invaded France and set its sights on Britain.

At the time of Skelton’s unexpected death, in the midst of a particularly bleak period during the Second World War, Lester B. Pearson, then working in the Office of the High Commissioner for Canada in London, lamented that “seldom… in any organization has the loss of one man meant so much” (p. 55). Hillmer’s deft skill in curating these documents presents readers with a strong confirmation of Pearson’s praise.

A prolific scholar, Hillmer’s extensive background and expertise in 20th-century Canadian international policy offers a unique opportunity for a thorough and insightful guided tour of Skelton’s professional life in government.

Will Stos
Canadian Parliamentary Review

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 37 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14