'Canada's Titanic' made Ancaster woman's life possible

Donna Parker is leaving for Quebec this weekend to attend commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. She says she owes her existence to the maritime disaster, considered one of the worst in Canadian history.

Ocean liner the Empress of Ireland sank near the Gaspé Peninsula on May 29, 1914

The Empress of Ireland, shown in an undated photo, sank after it struck a freighter off the Quebec coast 100 years ago this week. (Guy D'Astous/rms-empress-of-ireland.com/The Canadian Press)

Donna Parker is leaving for Quebec this weekend to commemorate the tragedy to which, the retired principal says, she owes her existence.

Parker's paternal grandfather, William Clark, lost his first wife, Lavinia, and their nine-year-old daughter, Nellie, 100 years ago this month to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a Great Britain-bound ocean liner that went down off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula after colliding with a freighter. 

The ship went down in a mere 14 minutes. Of the 1,477 people on board, only 465 survived. 

Dubbed "Canada's Titanic," 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.

A restored photo shows Parker's grandfather William Clark, left, posing with his first wife Lavinia and their daughter Nellie. (Courtesy of Donna Parker)

But for Parker, who moved to Ancaster, Ont., 11 years ago, the tragedy still looms large in her family's lore.

Her grandfather, an Englishman who immigrated to Canada years before the disaster, wasn't able to travel with his first wife and daughter on their trip back to his birth country. He took them to Quebec to see them off on the trans-Atlantic voyage. But his work with the Toronto Railway Company, a forerunner to the Ontario capital's Toronto Transit Commission, meant he could not travel his family to the Salvation Army convention they had planned to attend. 

"When he got back to Toronto at Union Station, he saw the headline that the ship had gone down and rushed back," said Parker. 

Her grandfather remarried in 1915, to a woman named Marguerite, and later 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, who, along with her husband, Bob, is attending a 100th anniversary commemoration in Rimouski. Que. on Friday. 

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

Overshadowed by Titanic

Though it grabbed headlines when its occurred, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland didn't remain in West's collective consciousness the same way the Titanic has — due in part, Parker believes, to the Summer 1914 outbreak of the First World War. 

But matters of class, she said, also played a major role.

While the Titanic had a tonier, more glamorous set of passengers, "the Empress was mainly just mainly regular people and a few First Class people," she said. 

Chris Klausen, a Canadian TV producer who owns one of the biggest collections of Empress of Ireland artifacts, agrees.

"Titanic was like dropping a bomb on the Academy Awards," said Klausen, who started collecting Empress objects in 2000.

That the Empress sank in less than 15 minutes — the Titanic took nearly two hours to become fully submerged — probably limited the number of out-sized narratives that would make it to shore, Parker added. 

"It went to down so fast so it didn’t have that same cache."

Ship's role in Canada's immigration boom

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

The steamship played a key role in Canada's immigration boom during her years in service, from 1906 until the 1914 tragedy. 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.

Descendants of those aboard the Empress 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, like Parker, plans to attend Empress-themed ceremonies near Rimouski this week. 

Klausen said the commemorative events are signs that the ship's story has, at long last, started to attract attention.

"There's finally some recognition, there's finally some peace for these families," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press