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Life Proud Swiss-Canadian Emil Peter skied into his 90s, and always had a project on the go

Emil Peter.

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Emil Peter: Father. Machinist. Skier. Swiss. Born July 21, 1924, in Malters, Switzerland; died Jan. 7, 2019, in Ottawa, of a stroke; aged 94.

As much he loved his country, Emil Peter felt constricted by the bonds of social class in Switzerland. After completing his apprenticeship as a machinist, he immigrated to Canada in 1948 to mine salt in Bishopric, Sask. Who knows what a young man who was mad about skiing must have thought about living in one of the flattest and coldest parts of the Prairies? He was a curiosity because he spoke three languages and could talk to the folks from nearby Gravelbourg in understandable French, but of a style, which amused them and made him a centre of attention on nights out.

Eventually he made it east to Ottawa, where he got a job with Ottawa Hydro. But the prospects of a German speaker rising in the ranks postwar were low. On weekends, he worked in a Swiss friend’s restaurant in the nearby Gatineau Hills. One day, Helen Eberli, also Swiss, came in to celebrate her birthday. Emil waited on her table and was asked what the soup of the day was. He stepped into the kitchen to shout out his inquiry in Swiss-German. “So, you are Swiss?” Helen asked. They were married not long after and lived in Ottawa, where they took in boarders, immigrants like themselves mostly. Helen was a trained seamstress and would make clothes for the city’s elite from her home studio. She loved her work.

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Emil and Helen stood solidly behind the two boys and two girls they raised, helping them to achieve higher education and training toward purposeful lives. “The meaning of life is to work!” Emil would say, and he always had a project on the go. He began his day with core-strength exercises and took up windsurfing in his 60s.

After a near-fatal accident, which left the scar from a live wire on his arm, Emil found a new job at the National Research Council. He was a skilled machinist and built models for testing in the wind tunnels at the lab for unsteady aerodynamics. Some of his craftsmanship flew as parts of the Canadarm. His skill was so great that he could drill a hole down a needle end-to-end to thread it. After his retirement from NRC, he ran his own business from his home workshop making valves to isolate and test air for the bomb- and drug-sniffing machines at airports.

Emil was Swiss always, and you could never be allowed to forget that. He skied until he was in his 90s, he drank kirsch, ate fondue and rosti, belonged to the Swiss rifle club and called “ home,” as he put it, to his relatives regularly. He had a Swiss-flag bumper sticker on his car, but he flew a Canadian flag in the corner of his yard in Ottawa, and another at the cottage he and the family built (by themselves, naturally) in Quebec.

After his funeral mass, and after everyone had spoken, a woman in the audience began to yodel, and yodel at length. As unexpected as it was, it was beautiful. She told us that was what she and Emil had done at the top of a ski run and thought it would be a fitting way to see him on his way.

James Palmer is Emil’s son-in-law.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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