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Oscar Douglas Skelton, ca. 1925-1935
Oscar Douglas Skelton was Dean of Arts at Queen's University, 1919-1925. He then accepted the position of Under Secretary of State for External Affairs. He was one of Mackenzie King's closest associates, the top civil servant of the period. He gave King advice on foreign affairs, but his influence extended to domestic matters as well. After his death in 1941, King described him as "the most revered and esteemed man in the Civil Service of Canada.
O.D. Skelton was born in Orangeville, Ontario, in 1878, the son of a high school teacher. A brilliant student, Skelton attended Queen's University, receiving his M.A. in 1899. He completed his Ph.D. in political economy at the University of Chicago in 1908. From 1909 to 1925, he was the Sir John A. Macdonald Professor of Political Science and Economics at Queen's. He was also Dean of Arts at Queen's from 1919 to 1925.
Skelton's relationship with Mackenzie King began when Skelton worked in the Department of Labour in the summer of 1911. King was the Minister of Labour at the time. One of Skelton's jobs, that summer, was to prepare a Liberal Party election pamphlet. During the First World War, Skelton was selected as Sir Wilfrid Laurier's official biographer and was close to Laurier in the last few years of Laurier's life.
Skelton attended the Imperial Conference of 1923 as Mackenzie King's adviser. King had heard him speak to the Canadian Club in Ottawa in January 1922 on "Canada and Foreign Policy" and had been very impressed. In 1924, King hired Skelton as a consultant on foreign affairs, with Skelton taking a leave of absence from Queen's. Skelton attended the League of Nations meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1924.
Reluctantly leaving Queen's in 1925, Skelton accepted the position of Under Secretary of State for External Affairs and served in that post until his death in 1941. King was Prime Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs for a large part of that period. Through his university contacts, Skelton was able to attract bright university graduates to the Department of External Affairs and to other government departments. He did much to improve the quality of the civil service in general. Three of his early recruits to External Affairs were Lester B. Pearson, Hugh Keenleyside and Norman Robertson, a group who provided leadership in the Department for many years. Skelton was one of King's closest associates, the top civil servant of the period. As Under Secretary, Skelton advised King advice on foreign affairs, but his influence extended to domestic affairs as well. He was a strong believer in loosening the ties to Britain.
Because Skelton was so talented, Conservative Prime Minister Bennett kept him on during his period in office from 1930 to 1935. Skelton felt more comfortable when King and the Liberals returned to office in 1935.
With the growing tensions in Europe in the late 1930s and the onset of the Second World War in 1939, Skelton took on more and more responsibility. He refused to slow down, even though he had developed a heart condition. Skelton died suddenly of a heart attack on January 28, 1941, at the age of 62, at the corner of Sparks and O'Connor Streets in Ottawa. He was at the wheel of his car, returning to the East Block on Parliament Hill after lunch. After he collapsed, his car continued forward, hitting a streetcar. A shocked Mackenzie King wrote, "There is no question, however, that so far as I am personally concerned, it is the most serious loss thus far sustained in my public life and work." (Diary, January 28, 1941) In a tribute by the Prime Minister distributed to the press, King wrote, "It is not too much to say that Dr. O.D. Skelton was the most revered and esteemed man in the Civil Service of Canada. His work was his life and in that work he gave his life."
Skelton wrote a number of books, including Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and The Life and Times of Sir Andrew Tilloch Galt.
Library and Archives Canada holds the Skelton Papers (MG30-D33).