The Life and Times of Ogle Gowan
by Don Akensen
Post Your Opinion
by ROYCE MacGILLIVRAY
Ogle Gowan is remembered, if somewhat dimly, in Canadian history as the founder of the Canadian branch of the Orange Order. He was also the grandfather of one of Ontario's most successful premiers, George Howard Ferguson (1923-1930), and of the noted feminist Emily Govan Ferguson Murphy. Don Alcenson of Queen's University has had the intriguing idea of writing a fictionalized biography of him.
As described in this book, Gowan was of illegitimate birth, married his own halfniece, and abandoned his native Ireland in 1829 after being exposed as the wouldbe forger of a legal document. Quickly after his arrival in Upper Canada he built a political following in the Brockville area by organizing recently-arrived Irish Protestants, but proved to be a drinker, a brawler, a liar, and seducer of underage girls.
It remains a mystery in this book what Gowan actually did for a living. He lived in style, but was perpetually unsuccessful as a farmer and newspaper proprietor, and burdened with debt. The charm and good political connections that won him the friendship of the young John A. Macdonald proved insufficient to enable him to rise into the higher ranks of politics (he was a chronic loser of election cam paigns), and he never kept for long the well-paid political jobs he obtained. In his last years he was a venerated figure among the Orangemen of Toronto; as senility closed in upon him he was tried, but acquitted, on the charge of sexual relations with a 12-year-old girl.
Obviously, this is subject matter that rivets the attention, but the manner in which the reader is continually kept under pressure to take an attitude of urubrella pointing prissiness to Gowan's misdeeds grows irritating, and is a clear violation of the reader's exclusive right to decide for himself how much of a scoundrel the amazing Gowan was. Still, the book is very well written, and is likely to shake the prejudice of anyone who thinks that Ontario history is all about Responsible Government and the Wetland Canal and the like.
The reader is urged by Akenson to think more vigorously than we have (it seems) usually done about the role of the Orange Order and the Irish Protestants in shaping English Canada. In this connection it is noteworthy that despite the original anti-Catholic purpose of the Orange Order, Gowan himself was far from a bigot. He called for Orange cooperation with Bishop Macdonell in the support of the Upper Canada government, had an eye out for gaining the Catholic vote, and was denounced in his old age by the Toronto Globe as "an uncompromising adherent of the priest party." In truth, Gowan seems to have been more anti-American than ani-anything else.
Akensen stresses how rough Upper Canada was in Gowan's time, and is likely to have many followers among novelists and historians in one of his discoveries, namely that Ontario has in its 19th-century past a rich appallingness that cries out for literary exploitation.