Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: A most influential public servant

One of five finalists, here’s an excerpt of Norman Hillmer’s O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition.

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April 15, 2016

One of five finalists for this year's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this is O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition, by historian and author Norman Hillmer.

The jury writes: “The shy, dogged, and brilliant Dr. O.D. Skelton was a dangerous man. In his long service as under-secretary of state for external affairs, from 1925 to 1941, Skelton subtly and steadily shifted Canada’s relationship with Great Britain. Many Canadians were outraged that Skelton was slowly cutting the bonds with London. As the most influential public servant of his day, he was the power behind the politicians.

“Norman Hillmer deftly explores Skelton’s life and service, warts and all, in a compelling narrative. Based on decades of research into multiple archives, this is an authoritative biography of a man who charted a new course for Canada.”

Canada at war

The first shots of the Second World War were fired close to Danzig from the German ship Schleswig-Holstein on 1 September 1939.  A full scale invasion of Poland began at the same time, and the progress of Hitler’s Wehrmacht was rapid.  The Chamberlain government momentarily seemed to flinch from its Polish commitment, exactly as Skelton wished would happen, but after an ultimatum that his aggression must stop went unheeded by Hitler, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on the 3rd.  Mackenzie King summoned Parliament into an immediate special session which, in Skelton’s bitter words, trotted behind Britain, “blindly and dumbly, to chaos.”  He stayed away from the House of Commons in silent protest and, unusually, few of his words found their way into the prime minister’s rambling war speech.

British High Commissioner Campbell reported to his home government on the six-day session’s “moments of great poignancy and other moments that fell little short of bathos”: Ernest Lapointe’s speech, in which he “took his political life in his hands and declared that it was impossible for Canada to stay out of the war”; J.S. Woodsworth’s declaration “that he could not abandon his personal conviction that war was wrong”; the “lengthy and frequently eloquent” address of the prime minister, dissolving in the end into fourteen lines of badly-read poetry, causing a buzz of conversation to break out around him; and the vote on the Speech from the Throne, “which, though it marked the actual assent of Parliament to Canada’s entry into the war, was taken almost without any one realizing what was happening and with a large number of members, including the Prime Minister himself, absent from their seats.”  Campbell wrote also about the government’s little band of senior officials, fatigued and overworked over the many weeks leading up to the war and often hostile to him, now moving cooperatively to meet the challenges of a great war.

Skelton was not in a cooperative mood.  Even though he had seen it coming, and predicted that it would happen, he was devastated by what he interpreted as the easy, casual, automatic way that Canada was going to war.  Over 25 years, the country had carefully built up a claim to an independent control of its destiny.  That worked well enough in peacetime, but nothing had ever been done, despite his steady reminders, to clarify what self-government would mean when Britain went to war.  Now Canadians had their answer.  It meant nothing.  In September 1939, the prime minister of the United Kingdom had taken over as the prime minister of Canada.  The button had been pressed in London, and thousands of Canadians were to be sent to war and death.  After all that he had done, said, advised, and dreamed, Canada had slipped back to being a colony again.

Wilfrid Eggleston was one of the group of reporters – “the largest crowd of newsmen I could remember” – who were summoned to a prime ministerial press conference on the day of Germany’s invasion of Poland.  Just outside Mackenzie King’s office, Eggleston encountered Skelton, the “great public servant” and “great patriot of Canada,” who was “slumped down in his chair, looking more exhausted and more strained than I had ever seen him.”  The journalist knew of Skelton’s opposition to active participation in another European war; his attitudes and the advice he was giving King were an open secret in Ottawa circles.  Observing OD’s “courageous despair,” Eggleston felt “a swift stab of compassion.”

Since he was a writer and not a talker, OD poured out his frustrations onto paper, in a memorandum composed on 10 September, immediately after the proclamation of King George VI that Canada was at war.  The British claimed that they were fighting to defend liberty and democracy, but to Skelton that was as much rhetoric as it was a genuine impulse.  Their primary motive was “the attempt, after years of humiliation, to revive the prestige of Britain, to compel Europe again to heed her decisive voice.”  This was their war, not Canada’s, and “the British Government which blundered into it, should have been allowed to blunder out.”  How “fantastic and insane” it was “for Canadians to allow themselves to be maneuvered and cajoled every quarter century into bleeding and bankrupting this young country because of the age-long quarrels of European hotheads and the futility of British statesmen.”  Canada was merely “the prize exhibit” in the latest of the British Empire’s adventures.

Skelton did not confine his criticism to the British.  Mackenzie King had done some maneuvering of his own.  The prime minister was masterly in his parliamentary strategy, and he had brought a united Canada into the war.  The unity, however, was superficial and misleading.  The all-but-unanimous backing that Parliament had given to Britain’s war did not represent the feeling of the country.  In Quebec there was rampant skepticism; the province would certainly oppose unlimited sacrifice.  Young Canada and rural Canada felt no connection to the war.  Even war supporters had no enthusiasm for the task ahead.  The old, the conservative, and the empire-minded – among them, of course, the prime minister – were shaping events.  It was “very doubtful if a majority of the people of Canada would in a free plebiscite have voted for war.”  A three-year war, the time the British thought it would take to achieve victory, if there was to be victory, would strain the national fabric and threaten Confederation.

Skelton shared in the widespread Canadian hatred of Hitler and all his works.  He understood that the Germans were out to dominate Europe, but he could not help minimizing the extent of what was at stake by writing that they wanted “to make themselves as much the masters of the Continent as the British once were of the sea.”  To Britain’s avowed objective of defeating Nazism, he replied: “possible, with complete victory, but what next?  We overthrew the Kaiser and got Hitler.”  It was the same old Europe, in other words: “our overlords in Britain” competing with “dictator thugs” to rearrange the map of the continent.  He insisted that the war did not touch core Canadian interests, but then, as he had written sarcastically in an earlier note to the prime minister, “Canada is supposed never to think of her own interests in foreign policy.”


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