In Ottawa in 1941 Oscar Skelton, Canada’s first deputy foreign minister, was driving on O’Connor Avenue on his lunch break when he suffered a fatal heart attack and ploughed his Packard into a streetcar. Back at the office, Skelton had secretly filed away a memo seething with frustration. His biography by acclaimed historian Norman Hillmer is worthy of a Chekhov novel: the unassuming functionary whose daily plodding concealed a boil of thwarted aspirations.
A Portrait Of Canadian Ambition is outstanding: “His grey exterior and natural reticence covered a vast range of ambitions – for an extraordinary life, for power and influence, for social standing and prosperity, and for an important place in the remaking of Canada as an independent and progressive country,” writes Hillmer, professor of history at Carleton University.
Skelton “blended in with prosaic Ottawa,” Hillmer notes. He wore tweed suits even in summer; his taste in literature ran to Agatha Christie novels. Canadians were “middle of the road, harmless people”, Skelton wrote. He liked English landscape paintings and lived in Rockcliffe Park, an Ottawa neighbourhood so dull that to this day many streets still have no sidewalks, presumably because there is no place to go.
Skelton from 1925 was head of the Department of External Affairs, a minor ministry with 140 employees that was the first to open Canadian consulates in foreign countries. Till the 1920s Ottawa relations were handled through British missions abroad.
Skelton was a 19th century man with all the narrowness that implied. “Skelton’s Canada was a white Canada,” Hillmer explains. The deputy minister did not like Jews, blacks or Asians and privately groused about Catholics. Dining once in an inexpensive restaurant in nearby Hull, Que. – “a God-forsaken hole,” he wrote – Skelton complained of “a good deal of quarrelling & staggering & foul language” by French-speaking millworkers.
Public service was good to Skelton. He was paid $10,000 a year in 1937, a handsome salary in Depression years, and lived in a six-bedroom house with servant quarters. “He would never be prime minister, but there was no question in his mind that he would have been a better one than Mackenzie King,” Ambition notes.
Skelton wanted more, for Skelton and his little department struggling to find a diplomatic role in the age of dictators. He was an early and vigorous critic of the Nazis, and pleaded with Mackenzie King not to pay an embarrassing 1937 courtesy call on Hitler. The Fuehrer was a “paranoiac mystic” with a “disordered mind”, Skelton wrote; the Nazis were “dangerous and disgusting” in their persecution of Jews and “cursed with an inferiority complex which compels dangerous swaggering”.
“Skelton was inclined to the belief that the world was full of carnivorous animals,” Hillmer writes. Witnessing the unravelling of peace and 1930s appeasement, the deputy foreign minister privately despaired that Canada would tumble into another disastrous world conflict.
He committed his fears to a confidential memo written September 10, 1939 as Ottawa went to war. How “fantastic and insane” it was, he said, “for Canadians to allow themselves to be maneuvered and cajoled every quarter century into bleeding and bankrupting this young country because of age-long quarrels of European hotheads and the futility of British statesmen”.
The memo was filed away, unread, till a decade after Skelton’s death, an epilogue to a little grey man in a little grey suit.
By Holly Doan
O.D.Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition, by Norman Hillmer; University of Toronto Press; 465 pages; ISBN 9780-80200-5342; $34.97