AND THE NATIONAL INTEREST
O.D. SKELETON’S DEPARTMENT
OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
IN THE 1920S
The national interest is a slippery beast – frequently invoked, seldom defined, adjustable to shifts of circumstance and differences of perspective.1 Yet O.D. Skelton was confident that he knew precisely what Canada’s interests in foreign policy were, and just as sure that the service of those interests must underpin the state’s conduct. Skelton’s three-decade-long crusade for independence from Britain, first as a professor and then as a public servant, was linked to his conviction that Canada’s international policies could only be right if they were based on a fully autonomous and objective stock-taking of “the real interests of one’s own country.”2 When he was named the permanent head of the Department of External Affairs half way through the 1920s, Skelton embraced the opportunity, turning his efforts to the building of an institution of independence capable of projecting national interests out into the world. The results were mixed.
Oscar Skelton wrote the prologue to his service in External Affairs in January 1922, with a much-publicized address to the Canadian Club in Ottawa.3 Six weeks earlier, a federal election had brought W. L. Mackenzie King’s Liberals to power; the prime minister was in the audience, along with other members of the government.4 As he unwrapped his argument, the Queen’s University professor insisted that the country’s national