Skelton, Oscar Douglas (1878-1941)

[photo of Oscar Douglas Skelton]

Skelton was a Professor of Politics and Economics at Queen's and the most powerful public servant of his day.

George Grant’s time as principal (1877-1902) left many legacies, but perhaps the most lasting was that an education at Queen’s is an initiation to public service. University wasn’t just about self-development, but also applying one’s talents to altruistic ends.

This idea made a powerful impact on Oscar Skelton. Born in Orangeville, Ontario, Skelton came to Queen’s to study Classics and English Literature (MA 1899) in the final years of Grant’s tenure. 

After earning a PhD in Politics and Economics from the University of Chicago, Professor Skelton – “O.D.” to all who knew him – returned to Queen's in 1909 to succeed Professor Adam Shortt as the Sir John A. Macdonald Professor of Political Science and Economics. He held this position until 1925, and also served as Dean of Arts from 1919 until 1925.

[O.D. Skelton]
O.D. Skelton, in his own words: I have at times been about as popular with the Imperialists here as a skunk at a tea party.

Professor Skelton’s academic output was prolific. He wrote studies of Canadian banking and of our first finance minister, A.T. Galt, and books explaining Canada as northern neighbour to America. A popular teacher, he also wrote widely on economics, history, and current affairs. He was close to Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the Prime Minister's last years and later wrote his biography.

Throughout his career, Skelton believed deeply that Canada must shed the vestiges of its colonial status and take control of its own affairs. He worked through the Liberal Party for this end.

He was engaged by Prime Minister Mackenzie King as a part-time foreign policy consultant after the Liberals won the election of 1921. In 1925, Mackenzie King asked Professor Skelton to come to Ottawa to oversee the formation of an independent Canadian foreign policy. As Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, Professor Skelton honed a policy of distancing Canada from the beck and call of Britain, leading him to say, “I have at times been about as popular with the Imperialists here as a skunk at a tea party.”

The Under-Secretary appointment was one he held until his death; through it he founded the modern Department of External Affairs.

Now known as the architect of Canada’s modern foreign policy, Professor Skelton favoured placing Canada’s interests ahead of automatic trans-Atlantic commitments. Prime Minister King trusted Professor Skelton’s wisdom, as did Tory Prime Minister R.B. Bennett when King went into opposition in the early Depression.

Skelton was offered Queen's principalship in 1930, but chose to stay in Ottawa, much to King's relief. An unassuming, unaffected, and hard-working man, he was the leading civil servant of his day. One of his colleagues in the civil service wrote that Skelton was the de facto "deputy Prime Minister of Canada."

He died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in late 1941.

See also: Skelton-Clark Fellows