Swiss Canadians

Swiss people have frequently emigrated since the 15th century. Many left their home country for adventure or to improve their living conditions, more recently to escape the confines of a small country and to gain experience abroad.

Prevost, Sir George
Portrait of Sir George Prevost, attributed to Robert Field, circa 1808-11. He led the Swiss de Meurons infantry in the War of 1812 (courtesy McCord Museum/McGill University).


Swiss people have frequently emigrated since the 15th century. Many left their home country for adventure or to improve their living conditions, more recently to escape the confines of a small country and to gain experience abroad.

Switzerland is a small, landlocked country surrounded by the much larger nations of France, Germany and Italy with Austria in between. The Swiss confederation, founded in 1291, had until the mid-1800s a turbulent history. Three of the 4 official languages of Switzerland are shared with its adjoining neighbour states. Apart from French, German and Italian, there is Rumantsch, used only in isolated valleys of the Grison region.

First Arrivals: Swiss Mercenaries in Canada

A small unit of Swiss soldiers and officers in the service of the French Crown was encamped in 1604 on the island of St Croix in Acadia. A drawing published by Samuel de Champlain in 1613 shows a small settlement established by Pierre DuGua de Monts, including a barracks for Swiss soldiers. The most prominent Swiss immigrant in 17th-century New France was Jacques Bizard (1642-92), a mercenary who in 1672 arrived as aide-de-camp to the Comte de Frontenac. In 1678 he was made seigneur of what is now known as "Île Bizard."

From the 16th to the mid-19th century, the Swiss were sought after because of their military skills and discipline, honed during centuries of bloody struggle for independence. Swiss mercenary units were distinct from other armies; commanded by members of Swiss patrician families, they formed their own regiments. Thus the de Meuron and de Watteville regiments were allied but not integrated with the British army in North America.

The de Watteville regiment played a prominent role in the War of 1812, capturing Fort Oswego from the Americans. The De Meuron regiment saw its first action near Fort Champlain, later in Plattsburg, NY. When it was disbanded in 1816, 353 officers and men stayed behind in Canada. The new settlers were directed to settlements at Perth and Drummondsville. Unused to the hardships of pioneer life, many de Meurons left for the US or returned to Europe.

Sir Frederick Haldimand is pre-eminent among the Swiss soldiers serving in Canada. Haldimand, being of French-speaking origin, had great empathy with the preoccupation of French-speaking colonists not to be submerged under British dominance. He managed to keep a majority of them on the side of the emerging Canada.

Sir George Prevost, who in 1811 assumed double duties as governor general of the Canadas and commander-in-chief of the British troops in North America, was born in New Jersey to a Swiss officer. He was instrumental in persuading the British colonial office in London to recognize previous French institutions.

Early Swiss settlers, merchants and pioneers include Pierre, François and Jacques Miville, who were granted lands in 1665 at Le Grand Anse, now La Pocatière, Qué, still popularly known as "Le canton des Suisses." Laurenz Ermatinger arrived in Montréal around 1761 and later became one of 9 partners in the new North West Company. Charles Oakes Ermatinger, a son of Laurenz, contributed decisively to extending the fur trade around Sault Ste Marie, Ont. Sebastian Fryvogel (1791-1873) is a Swiss-born pioneer credited with helping to open up the Huron Tract, the vast lands east of Lake Huron. The founding of Zurich, Ont, in 1856 is credited to Frederick Knell, who bought land southeast of Lake Huron and named it after the capital of his home canton.

The Selkirk Expedition to the Red River

Because of his positive experience with the de Meurons, Lord Selkirk sent an agent to Switzerland to recruit civilians to emigrate to Red River. After the War of 1812, a hundred men from the disbanded Swiss regiments were hired by Lord Selkirk to accompany him to his Red River Colony. After occupying Fort William, a small detachment of 30 soldiers and 2 officers continued west and entered Fort Douglas by the Red River, re-establishing order. Some of these soldiers stayed on as settlers. Today the Avenue des Meurons in Winnipeg and the Point de Meuron nearby are reminders of the Swiss regiment's settlers.

In 1821, after a journey of unremitting hardship, 180 new settlers arrived in November, only to find that no cabins had been built for them. Nor were there sufficient provisions. About half of the new arrivals had to set off for Pembina near the US border, where conditions where believed to be more favorable. Three years of flooding and plagues of locusts drove most inhabitants of the Red River Colony to greener pastures.

Peter Rindisbacher, who had at age 15 come with his family to Red River, made a number of watercolour sketches of the Swiss immigrants' journey. His accurate depictions of native and traders life on the prairies are a valuable historical and artistic record of that period.

Other early Swiss settlers in the West include Captain Louis Agassiz, who found a position as head of police in the Hope district of the Fraser River. Christian Fahrni was first in establishing regular wagon service between Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton. Since 1935, Smithers, BC, has had a flourishing Swiss community of more than a hundred, many engaged as geologists, mining engineers, teachers and surveyers.

Swiss mountain guides came to Canada at the turn of this century in the service of the CPR, which intended to foster tourism for its newly built hotels in the Rockies. For 20 years these Swiss guides assisted mountaineers from Canada, the US and Europe in numerous first ascents in the Rockies. Although WWI ended the golden pioneer days of first ascents and tourism in the Rockies, there are still many Swiss as mountain guides, ski instructors, photographers and filmmakers in Canmore, Banff and Jasper, Alta, and Golden, BC.

Immigration After WWII

Swiss immigration diminished greatly after 1914 and did not resume until after 1945. This time it was of a different nature. A higher proportion of immigrants were professional and enterpreneurial individuals, the majority of whom went into urban centres. Provincial capitals had their own Swiss clubs, associations and bulletins. Many Swiss immigrants came to obtain foreign experience in their chosen field and then return home or move on.

From the 1930s onward, Swiss banks and insurance companies opened branches in Canada (eg, Swiss Bank Corp, Zurich Insurance). The multinational Swiss-based chemical giants Sandoz, Ciba-Geigy and Hoffman LaRoche (now merged as Novartis) opened factories and research labs in Montréal. Machine manufacturers Sulzer Brothers and Brown-Bovery (now ASEA) with head offices in Baden, and Oerlikon Zurich enterprises opened factories in Canada, as did the largest nationwide building product company, St Laurent Cement, in Québec. The contribution made by these corporate giants to Canada's economy is in the billions.

Prominent Figures

Swiss scientists and academics in Canada work in many disciplines. As expected most are in Québec, followed by Ontario, BC and Alberta. Swiss physicists were attracted to the research facilities in particle physics at the TRIUMF Centre in Vancouver. A successful career in engineering was that of John Turque, who arrived 1937 in Montréal and later founded the CNC group, the general contractor for the international airport at Mirabel. In the field of medical science, Dr Erwin Diener was instrumental in 1973 in establishing the first university department of immunology in Canada at the University of Alberta.

Swiss writers, artists and musicians are most active in Québec, which has long attracted Swiss immigrants. Napoléon Aubin (1812-90) was a prolific writer, journalist and publisher who in 1845 became editor of Le Canadien. André Borel, another Swiss writer in Montréal, published Croquis du Far-West and Le Robinson de la Red Deer. P.-E. Briquet wrote Croquis Canadien for the Journal de Genève. Auguste Viatte's Histoire Litteraire de l'Amerique Francophone (1954) became a classic. Laure Rièse received the French Legion of Honor for her work in promoting the French language, and for her authorship.

Apart from Peter Rindisbacher and André Biéler, there have been other Swiss painters, especially in the Toronto area. The main activity of Swiss immigrants in the visual arts in Canada has been in photography (Robert Frank), and more prominently in graphic art and design, where Swiss designers in the 1970s introduced the first undergraduate and graduate programs in visual communication design in Canada at the University of Alberta.

In music, Charles Dutoit has raised the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to international renown for the last 2 decades. He arrived in Montréal in 1977 and soon received numerous distinctions for his outstanding recordings. Other Swiss musicians who have played leading roles in Canadian music include Mario Duschenes, flutist and composer, and Pierre Souvairan, pianist and composer. Regula Burckhardt-Qureshi, a gifted musician herself, has made unique contributions to ethnomusicology.

Swiss immigrants in Canada have since the 1960s been stagnant in numbers at around 30 000, since as many Swiss return home as arrive. Switzerland today has widely dispersed but highly specialized industries, a very high standard of living and a strong currency. In 1995 Switzerland for the first time since the 1930s experienced serious unemployment, which has increased the number of young people interested in permanent emigration. The 2006 census recorded 137 775 of Swiss ancestry living in Canada.

Further Reading

  • Momryk Myron, The Canadian Family Tree (1979); E.J. Hart, The Selling of Canada: The CPR and the Beginning of Canadian Tourism, ch 50 (1983); Joan Magee, The Swiss in Ontario (1991); E. H. Bovay, Le Canada et les Suisses, 1604-1974 (1976).

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