'Canada's Titanic' finally getting its due

The sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914, stands as one of the country's worst maritime disasters, though a surprising number of Canadians have never heard of it.

Empress of Ireland sank in St. Lawrence River 100 years ago

On May 29, 1914, the Canadian Pacific steamship, the Empress of Ireland, collided with a Norwegian freighter near Quebec, sinking in 14 minutes and killing 1,012 people. (The Canadian Press)

Clinging to the side of a doomed ocean liner, Leonard Delamont wrapped his lifebelt around his mother, kissed her goodbye and jumped into the glacial waves of the St. Lawrence River.

The young man, never to be seen again, was among 1,012 killed that foggy night when the Empress of Ireland was hit by a freighter near Rimouski and plunged beneath the surface in just 14 minutes.

Dubbed "Canada's Titanic," the sinking on May 29, 1914, stands as one of the country's worst maritime disasters, though a surprising number of Canadians have never heard of it.

Compared to the famous story of the Titanic luxury liner that sank two years earlier, the Empress of Ireland's tale has remained in the shadows.

100th anniversary approaches

But experts on the ship's history believe the Empress is finally getting its due as the 100th anniversary of the tragedy approaches.

The vessel will be commemorated in the coming days with the release of Canada Post stamps, a pair of silver coins from the Royal Canadian Mint, the launch of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History, the unveiling of a monument and several memorials around the country.

A lot of Canadians don't know about it and I guess I would be one of them if I didn't have a family connection,- June Ivany, decendant of Empress of Ireland passenger

Descendants of those aboard the Empress, like Delamont's niece, hope the centenary will help further boost public awareness about the liner and its victims.

"A lot of Canadians don't know about it and I guess I would be one of them if I didn't have a family connection," said June Ivany, who plans to attend Empress events this week in Rimouski, Que., near the wreck site.

"It is part of Canadian history and so much is played up about the Titanic. Why not make people aware of our maritime disasters?"

The deadly collision represents only part of the historical significance linked to the steamship, which played a key role in Canada's immigration boom during her years in service, from 1906 until the 1914 tragedy.

Sailing for a new life in Canada 

Over those years, around 120,000 European immigrants sailed on the prestigious liner to a new life in Canada.

The federal government has estimated about a million Canadians today — or about one in 35 — can trace an ancestor to this ship.

Others believe the number is a more modest ratio of one in 60.

But despite its importance the Empress has long been overshadowed by two higher-profile transatlantic sinkings of the same era that also claimed more than 1,000 lives: the Titanic and the Lusitania.

The Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912, killing around 1,500 people, while a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania in 1915, killing nearly 1,200.

The horror of the Empress disaster and the tales of survival were splashed on front pages around the world, but weeks later international attention had shifted to the outbreak of the First World War.

As the years passed by, families affected by the Empress disaster  like Delamont's clan avoided discussing the incident to spare themselves from the painful memories.

"When I was growing up, you didn't talk about it," said Ivanywho also shared her family's story in a posting on a website dedicated to the anniversary.

465 suvivors 

All four of Delamont's relatives aboard the Empress, including his mother Seraphine, were among the fortunate 465 who survived.

Ivany said aside from hearing about her uncle's sacrifice, she also learned about her aunt Elizabeth's experience amid the chaos that surrounded the sinking ship.

"(She) had her hair ripped out by other people in the water," Ivany said of an experience that haunted Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

"She would never even get in a bathtub and was terrified of water."

Changed the course of history 

The sinking also changed the course of history for victims' families.

Donna Parker says she wouldn't be alive if it weren't for the Empress disaster.

Parker's grandfather, Will Clark, lost his first wife, Laviniaand their nine-year-old daughter, Nellie. She said they had been travelling without him because he had stayed home to work.

Her grandfather later remarried and had two children, eight grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

"I guess the thing that really affects me is that it's a terribly tragic story, and yet my family would not be here if it weren't for that," said Parker, an Ancaster, Ont., resident who also plans to participate in memorial activities in Rimouski.

"It was our early history ... I just think those people shouldn't be forgotten."


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