How the Swiss helped open the Canadian Rockies

A still from the new documentary: Swiss Guides in the Canadian Rockies – Beyond Adventure Bruno Engeler Archives. Courtesy of Swiss Consulate General in Vancouver

They go by names such as Walter, Ernest and Christian and all are more than 3,000m tall. How 15 peaks in the Rocky Mountains came to be given common Swiss names is part of a story being celebrated this year in western Canada.

This content was published on June 22, 2013 minutes

In the 1850s, gold miner and businessman George Stelli became the first Swiss to settle in the province of British Columbia. Decades on, the Swiss community was big enough in western Canada to warrant its own consular post, opening in Vancouver 100 years ago.

Arguably the most remarkable Swiss immigrants at the time were the three dozen mountain guides brought over by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) – responsible for a chain of hotels in the Rockies – to kick-start a fledgling tourism industry.

Their impact turned out to be so great and lasting, peaks were named after them.

The Whyte Museum in Banff, devoted to the cultural heritage of the mountain range, recently highlighted the importance of the early Swiss contributions in a special exhibition. These guides, according to the exhibition, “helped cultivate an appreciation of Canada’s Rocky Mountains and of an environment to be both preserved and revered”.

“They were responsible for the evolution of mountaineering culture in Canada,” says filmmaker Josias Tschanz, summing up the efforts of pioneers like Christian Haesler, Ernst Feuz and Walter Perren, three of the group of Swiss guides who completed no fewer than 50 of the initial 56 first ascents of 3,000m mountains in the Rockies.

A Swiss-Canadian, Tschanz was commissioned by the Consulate General of Vancouver to make a documentary on the guides as part of the mission’s centenary celebrations.

While making the film he discovered that there was not a single mountaineering fatality in the 50 years the Swiss guides were employed by the railway – the result, he believes, of excellent technique and the fact they were “very Swiss, so really organised”.

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New breed of immigrants

Tschanz’s documentary is just one of the jubilee projects commissioned by the consulate. The 2013 events also include concerts by Swiss choirs and yodel clubs, public talks comparing the democracies of Switzerland and Canada, and reading tours by young Swiss authors.

Raising awareness of Switzerland is not the only goal of the consulate, according to project co-ordinator, Stefanie Wunderlin, but to highlight “the wonderful friendship” between Swiss and Canadians.

One of the big projects commissioned by the consulate is a book, Swiss Immigration to Canada, due to be published later this year.

The author, Ilona Shulman Spaar, told that a reason for migrating to western Canada today is often the search for adventure. A century ago, it was the search for a better life.

At that point in history, it was a win-win situation for both countries: There were not enough jobs to go around in Switzerland, and Canada was actively pursuing European settlers to establish the young nation’s hold on the west. It was a region beset by rebellion and the young Canadian government was concerned American settlers coming up from the south could overrun it.

“This was a time when immigration did not happen on a private initiative, but the Canadian and Swiss governments actively helped the Swiss emigrate,” Spaar explains.

2013 jubilee – Like+++ Minded since 1913

According to the Swiss Consulate General in Vancouver, the 2013 promotional activities will cost up to CHF100,000 ($107,000). The government’s promotional agency, Presence Switzerland, is providing a deficit guarantee for approximately half of the costs, while private sponsors have committed themselves to covering the other half.

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Swiss chalet

As the Swiss guides continued to develop mountaineering and became a tourist attraction in their own right – a pseudo Swiss chalet village was built to accommodate guides – a wider Swiss community across the region began to take root.

The growth in the number of Swiss settlers prompted one Canadian newspaper to write: “The Swiss are a sturdy and independent people, as their history shows. They have no wish to be pampered or patronized, but they appreciate advice and encouragement […].”

And the Swiss consulate would eventually take on much greater responsibility than just caring for its own community.

In the final year of the First World War, neutral Switzerland exercised its good offices mandate looking after German interests with regard to war internment camps in western Canada. The Swiss consul in Vancouver therefore visited German prisoners and inspected the camps to evaluate the conditions in which they were held.

“It was very detailed: how much food they were given, what clothes they were wearing and even the social entertainment programmes they had in the camps,” Spaar says of the camp reports based on the visits.

Any violations of the Hague Convention – an international agreement on the laws and customs of war – were reported to the camp authorities but it often took a long time before they were acted upon, if at all. “The camp authorities had to report to Ottawa, so changes were only introduced two months or even half a year later.”

The Swiss consuls carried out the same role in the Second World War, and insisted that remote labour camps be inspected by the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross and officials from the Canadian YMCA.

History of bilateral relations

Canada has been a destination for Swiss emigration since the 17th century. Switzerland opened its first consulate in Canada (Montreal) in 1875 and established diplomatic relations with Canada in 1945. 2013 marks the centenary of official relations between Switzerland and Western Canada.

Key figures:

Swiss colony 2012: 38,959 persons 

Swiss exports 2012: CHF3239 million 

Change over previous year: + 16.8% 

Swiss imports 2012: CHF 639 million 

Change over previous year: +17.9%

(source: Swiss foreign ministry)

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By the middle of the 20th century, many of the original Swiss guides had settled permanently in Canada, and many more followed. They now turned their attention to skiing, a quickly growing sport.

 “There is a famous picture of [Swiss-Canadian heli-skiing pioneer] Rudi Gertsch jumping over a tea house in Banff. It was Bruno Engeler [the last of Swiss guides hired by CPR] who took the picture, and it was this picture that inspired a lot of skiers in Canada like Rob Boyd, who was a World Cup champion,” Tschanz says about the part of his film devoted to the guides’ influence on skiing.

Zermatt-native Walter Perren, for instance, is considered the father of modern mountain rescue in Canada’s national parks, while Bern’s Peter Schaerer played a crucial role in developing the country’s avalanche safety system.

“I feel a very deep sense of pride that they were capable of doing this in the Rockies and giving Canada such a great mountain culture,” says the filmmaker, who came to western Canada as a teenager with his family, after his father decided to heed the call of the wild and live in a remote part of British Columbia.

“Millions of tourists visit [resorts in the Rockies] every year and a lot of that is due to the impact of Swiss mountaineers,” he says.

Tschanz’s first feature film, Neutral Territory, was autobiographical, depicting his decision to fully embrace a Canadian way of life, and the ensuing struggle with his father, a man desperately clinging to Swiss traditions.

This, according to Spaar, is often the case: “I’m surprised that many Swiss who have come here still strongly hold onto their culture.”

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