Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Upper Canada Patriarch: A review


Upper Canada Patriarch is the story of  German-American immigrants, Conrad Ausman and his wife Lydia who opposed their families wishes and decided to come to Canada in the years following the American Revolution. As such, they would qualify as Late Loyalists rather than the Fighting Loyalists who actually partook in the armed struggle. The book stems from the author's research into his family's genealogy and  attempts to address the questions as to why his ancestors would willingly choose the hardships of  a pioneering life in frontier Canada over a more settled and culturally comfortable existence in the Mohawk valley of upper New York State. Since some of my own German-American Loyalist ancestors emigrated from the very same towns and villages (Herkimer and German Flats) mentioned in the novel, I readily jumped at the chance to read this novel. Like the author, John  L. Ausman,  I too seek answers as to why my fighting Loyalist forbears would have chosen to bear arms in defence of a culturally and geographically foreign monarch rather than to have chosen their neighbours' easier path of going along to get along in the full flow of  what was to be America's first civil war. What were the political issues, the cultural context of the day which would impel young Americans to forgo the proclaimed liberties of the new Republic in favour of investing their lives in pioneer villages under the vagaries of a seemingly discredited constitutional monarchy?  


Conrad Ausman's idée fixe is the desire to independently farm his own land and to acquire enough of it to pass on to his children as their patrimony.  It is this vision which animates the entire novel. Conrad fell victim to the German tradition of  his parents bequeathing their land to Conrad's younger sibling in return for his brother's obligation to look after them in their old age. With the price of land rising rapidly in the Mohawk valley, Conrad is forced to look either westward to Ohio or north to Canada as the base in which to quite literally plant his dream for his own and his progeny's future. When the new republic's need for taxation to stand up to foreign powers and fight wars hits the remote and  isolationist German-American communities of the Mohawk valley, divisive conflicts arise which propel Conrad and his new wife towards the perceived tranquility of Canada.


The novel is broken into years and not chapters. At times this format appears a bit clunky and jerky as the author attempts to back fit the story spanning decades into the broad sweep of  historical events as disparate as the War of  1812 and the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837.  Characters and their development within the framework of the novel are a bit wooden and stunted. What it is however is a very  credible projection of the interplay between the novel's principal characters and the defining historical events surrounding their lives which illuminates a narrative on early life in pioneer Ontario.


Ultimately, Conrad's attempt to control the destiny of his children in his country of adoption utterly fails, his offspring independently pursuing their own dreams and exploiting new commercial activities and opportunities in the rapidly developing province. The author is to be commended for shining a light on little known aspects of  life in Ontario during this critical period of the province's development. With the exception of the present year  wherein the War of 1812 has been of necessity brought to the forefront, it is a period  of Canadian history of rapidly declining interest to our educational institutions caught up in the multicultural embrace of new immigrants for whom the tales of early struggles and tragedies in their country of choice holds little concern.  Conrad and his noble wife Lydia eventually lie in unmarked graves. Their struggles and broken dreams long forgotten by new waves of immigrants who would give their weathered gravestones, even if they existed,  scant attention as they flash by on daily commutes between block Buster Video and Walmart over the remains of the pioneers which lie beneath the asphalt and concrete wilderness of  what is now the modern Greater Toronto Area.