O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition

O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition

Weight 0.00 lbs
By Norman Hillmer
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2015
World Rights
452 Pages
ISBN 9781487521226
Published May 2016
Online discount: 25%
 $39.95    $29.96
ebook (EPUB format)
ISBN 9781442622364
Published Jul 2015
Online discount: 25%
Full purchase $39.95

When O.D. Skelton became Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s foreign policy advisor in 1923, he was already a celebrated critic of the status quo in international and domestic affairs, a loyal Liberal Party man, and a fervent nationalist who believed Canada needed to steer a path independent of Britain. Two years later, he became the permanent head of Canada’s Department of External Affairs. Between then and his tragic death in 1941, Skelton created Canada’s professional diplomatic service, staffing it with sharp young men such as Lester B. Pearson.

Skelton’s importance in Ottawa was unparalleled, and his role in shaping Canada’s world was formative and crucial. Using research from archives across Canada and around the world, Norman Hillmer presents Skelton not only as a towering intellectual force but as deeply human – deceptively quiet, complex, and driven by an outsize ambition for himself and for his country. O.D. Skelton is the definitive biography of the most influential public servant in Canada’s history, written by one of the most prolific Canadian historians of international affairs and the editor of Skelton’s voluminous papers.

Norman Hillmer is a professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University, an award-winning teacher, and the author or editor of twenty-nine books.


1. Going Away and Coming Home. 1878–1908

2. Citizen Entrepreneur, 1908–14

3. War and Sir Wilfrid, 1914–19

4. Courting Mr King, 1919–22

5. Amen, Downing Street, 1923

6. The Decision, 1924–5

7. You Ought to be Prime Minister, 1925–6

8. Inching towards Independence, 1927–9

9. Life with RB, 1930–3

10. The Moderate Leaguer, 1933–5

11. Fortune in Our Neighbours, 1935–6

12. Pretty Well Used Up, 1937–8

13. Together and Apart, 1938–9

14. Half-Day’s Work Nearly Done, 1939–41


“To most of his colleagues, Oscar Skelton was the shy and brilliant public servant who preferred to remain in the shadows – and with the passing of years, the shadows have almost swallowed him up. Only a few of his contemporaries recognized that, under the grey exterior, lay a considerable ego and a passionate ambition for his country. Now Norman Hillmer has put the spotlight on a man who helped cut Canada’s ties with its colonial past, and who laid the foundations for Canada’s foreign policy in the twentieth century. Hillmer’s rigorous scholarship, dramatic narrative, and powerful insights tell us so much about a complicated man and a crucial period of Canadian history – and why Mackenzie King was such a successful Prime Minister. Rich in anecdotes and intriguing details, this is an intimate, elegant history on a large canvas.”

Charlotte Gray, bestselling author of 'Sisters in the Wilderness, Gold Diggers, Striking it Rich on the Klondike', and 'The Massey Murder'

“Norman Hillmer’s new book on O.D. Skelton is one of the most important political biographies I have read. From these fascinating pages, Skelton emerges as a clever, even brilliant civil servant who shaped Canada more than any cabinet minister in the interwar years and, at times, more than the prime ministers he served. Elegantly written and based on extensive archival research, O.D. Skelton contributes significantly to our understanding of what Canadian independence meant not only in terms of international policy but in terms of domestic political affairs.”

John English, Director, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto

O.D. Skelton will be essential reading for anyone studying Canadian political and diplomatic history in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Skelton, himself a superb writer, would be delighted by this elegantly written biography.”

Patricia Roy, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Victoria

‘Hillmer’s masterful biography of Skelton helps us to see Skelton who he was… This is the work of a senior scholar who knows what he is doing and knows his subject.’

Christopher Dummitt, Acadiensis vol 65:01:2016

‘Hillmer’s biography will be indispensable to future students of Canadian government and politics.’

Kenneth C. Dewar, Canadian Historical Review vol 97:02:2016

‘Norman Hillmer’s 2015 masterful biography of Skelton helps us to see Skelton for who he was… This is the work of a senior scholar who knows what he is doing, and knows his subject.’

Christopher Dummitt, Acadiensis, vol 45:01:2016

‘The greatest compliment one may pay to this book is that it is worthy of its subject.’

Hector MacKenzie, British Journal of Canadian Studies vol 29:02:2016

Ottawa Book Awards awarded by the City of Ottawa (Canada) - Runner-up in 2016

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing awarded by Writer's Trust of Canada

(Canada) - Short-listed in 2016

Canada Prize in the Humanities - The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

(Canada) - Short-listed in 2016
Stacey Prize (Canada) - Winner in 2017

John W. Dafoe Book Prize awarded by J.W. Dafoe Foundation

(Canada) - Short-listed in 2016