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RMS Empress of Ireland, One Hundredth Anniversary of Maritime Tragedy


Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, when people look at Canada on a map they see one of the world's largest countries, a nation of over 3,000 miles wide that spans a continent. It is sometimes easy to forget that we are a maritime nation.

Indeed, the Canadian Red Ensign, which served as our unofficial flag for almost a century, evolved from the original Red Ensign which flew from the masts of all Canadian merchant vessels during our colonial and post-colonial period. The Red Ensign became synonymous with Canada because of our maritime heritage.

I certainly have a maritime heritage. I grew up in a seaport. All my brothers sailed at one time or another for a living; my father went to sea at the age of 12 and had sailed around the world twice by the age of 21.

My grandmother's brother drowned at sea; my grandfather's brother drowned at sea; and I have two great-grandfathers and one great-great-grandfather who drowned at sea.

In short, the sea is a wonderful provider, but danger is always present and disaster can occur in an instant.

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of Canada's worst maritime disaster. In the early hours of May 29, 1914, just east of Rimouski, Quebec, the Canadian Pacific steamship RMS Empress of Ireland sank to the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, after a collision with the Norwegian collier, SS Storstad. Of the 1,477 souls onboard, 1,012 crew and passengers lost their lives.

The Empress, steaming along the south shore of the St. Lawrence, was bound for the Atlantic when her crew spotted the oncoming Storstad. Captain Henry Kendall, on the bridge of the Empress, anticipated that his ship had ample time to cross the Storstad's bow and make a starboard pass.

But a thick blanket of fog engulfed the ships, causing both to lose visual, and exercising caution, Captain Kendall made the fateful decision to order his engines "full astern," slowing his ship to a stop in hopes to avoid ramming the Storstad.

The Norwegian ship, however, emerged from the fog, and without time to alter course, pierced her bow through the starboard side of the Empress.

The Storstad punctured the Empress well below her waterline, causing her to take on water rapidly and list hastily to starboard. Her crew and passengers, most of whom were asleep at the time of the impact, had little time to react. Though there were sufficient lifeboats for all on board, only a handful could be deployed.

It took just 14 minutes, from the moment of impact, for the Empress of Ireland to sink to her final resting place at the bottom of the St. Lawrence.

Since her launch in 1906, the Empress of Ireland had served this country with distinction, playing a central role in Canada's immigration boom. During her service, she made 95 return transatlantic trips between Canada and Britain, bringing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Canada's shores.

With the loss of the Titanic just two years prior, as well as the looming outbreak of the First World War, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was largely overshadowed and has remained largely forgotten.

Now, to mark the occasion, Canada Post has issued two commemorative stamps, while the Royal Canadian Mint has released silver coins struck with a spectacular yet haunting portrait of the Empress disappearing into the fog. The Canadian Museum of History is also showing an exhibit to mark the tragedy.

Colleagues, let us now, on the centennial of the disaster, pay tribute. On this day, let us remember the 1,012 souls who perished on that foggy morning a century ago, and may we honour the ship, our forgotten Empress, for her service in bringing so many immigrants to their new home in Canada, to enjoy the blessings of our land.