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Public Service of Canada

Honourable senators, Canadians enjoy poking fun at their public servants. It is a kind of national sport stemming from the fact that we have grown accustomed to expect so much from our civil service. A little good-hearted teasing never hurt anyone, however, I remind honourable senators of a time when our public servants deserved our ridicule.

I remind Canadians of April 1, 1925. On that day, Prime Minister Mackenzie King appointed Oscar Douglas Skelton as Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, and gave the Queen's University professor the job of bringing Canada's civil service into the modern age.

Skelton's task was daunting. How flawed was our public service? In the words of historian Jack Granatstein, it was a mess, a swamp of patronage and a refuge for the incompetent. A 1924 Senate report called it so lacking in efficiency as to be little short of a national disgrace.

Enter Skelton. He hired dozens of the most talented young men the country has to offer — alas, only men, but what men. These bright, talented "all-rounders" steered us through the most momentous period in our country's history: the Depression, the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War.

How good were they? They were the best anywhere. According to Dr. Granatstein, the collective intellectual power of Canada's Foreign Service had no peer in Ottawa, London or Washington.

How did Skelton cultivate such remarkable people? He worked his contacts within the country's universities to hire men based on intellectual and professional merit, not political or family connections. He then instilled in these recruits an ethos that public service is a duty and a privilege, not a sinecure.

Armed with that enduring belief, Skelton's External Affairs set a standard that senior executives in other key departments soon emulated to forge the highly skilled, non-partisan public service we now count on.

O.D. Skelton changed Ottawa. He and his recruits changed Canada, and it all started 85 years ago tomorrow.