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The Death of Mackenzie King’s Confidant

For the week of Monday January 24, 2011

On January 28, 1941, Oscar Douglas Skelton died tragically of a heart attack while at the wheel of his car as he was returning to Parliament Hill after lunch. As Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s closest advisor, and architect of Canada’s modern External Affairs Department, his sudden death sent shock waves through the country’s political community.

Dr. Oscar D. Skelton
© Library and Archives Canada /  Lafayette / National Film Board Fonds / C-002089
Skelton was born in Orangeville, Ontario, in 1878. A brilliant student, he obtained his Ph.D. in political economy in 1908. In 1909, he served as a professor of political science and economics at Queen’s University, and was appointed the Dean of Arts from 1919 to 1925. Skelton also published several important works on Canadian history and economics, and was Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s official biographer.

In 1922, Mackenzie King attended a lecture on foreign policy by Skelton, and the two men became friends. King was seeking a new under-secretary for the External Affairs Department who shared his ideas about increasing Canada’s independence from Britain. He asked Skelton to serve as his advisor at the Imperial conference the following year and in 1924 as a member of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations. In 1925, King appointed Skelton under-secretary of External Affairs. Under Skelton’s leadership, Canada began opening legations and other offices in foreign countries. From 1927 on, staff were hired on the basis of their education and competitive examinations rather than political appointment. 

Canadian Delegation to the League of Nations, 1928 (Dr. Skelton is on the far left)
© William Lyon Mackenzie King Fonds / Library and Archives Canada / C-009055
 

As Europe moved towards war in the late 1930s, King and Skelton began to have disagreements over foreign policy. Skelton, an extreme neutralist and anti-imperialist, believed Canada should stay out of any European conflicts. King, on the other hand, knew that in any eventual conflict Canada would have to come to Britain’s aid.

During this period Skelton expanded Canada’s External Affairs headquarters, and transformed it into a truly professional foreign service. The onset of the Second World War in 1939 placed a great deal of additional stress on the overworked Skelton, who was already suffering from a heart condition. After Skelton’s sudden death, Mackenzie King stated in a press release, “It is not too much to say that Dr. O.D. Skelton was the most revered and esteemed man in the Civil Service in Canada. His work was his life and in that work he gave his life.”

Oscar Douglas Skelton was designated a national historic person in 1947 for his work as a historian, economist, and developer of the Department of External Affairs.

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