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May29ThuA century ago, tragedy struck the Empress of Ireland and its doomed passengers. May 29, 2014 by Ken Ramstead
In the early hours of May 29, 1914, the luxurious oceangoing liner the Empress of Ireland, en route to London, England, was rammed by the Storstad, a Norwegian collier carrying a shipment of coal to Montreal. The ship sank in 14 minutes, taking with it more than one thousand passengers and crew.
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Grievous as that loss was, it was especially dire for The Salvation Army in Canada, as a delegation of Salvationists had been on their way to England to attend an Army congress. One hundred and twenty-four Salvation Army members died, including the top leadership of the Canadian Army and most of the Canadian Staff Band. It was a dark day for the religious organization.
While the outbreak of the First World War scant months later relegated this maritime disaster to a footnote in Canadian history, The Salvation Army has never forgotten the loss. Neither have the citizens of Rimouski, Que., the small town that did so much to shelter and take care of the pitiable survivors of the disaster.
Interest always stayed strong in the area, and dedicated local amateur divers made it their mission to rescue what they could from the sunken shipwreck. Their efforts culminated in the foundation of the Maritime Historical Site at Pointe-au-Père, Que., whose centrepiece is a structure devoted to the Empress.
“We have more than 200 artifacts in the museum, ranging from ship instruments to parts of the Empress herself, such as portholes, right down to spoons and cutlery,” says Annemarie Bourassa, the museum's deputy director.
She suggests that over and above the tragedy, the Empress needs to be remembered for the important role it played in the peopling of Canada in the early years of the 20th century. Thousands of immigrants came to this country on the Empress of Ireland and her sister ship, the Empress of Britain.
For Annemarie, the most touching exhibit in the museum is a child's purse that contains a folded bill.
“The little girl was still clutching it in her hand when her body was discovered by the divers,” says Annemarie. “For me, it's a poignant symbol in miniature of the greater tragedy. So many lives were lost, so many families were torn apart.”
The artifacts on display at the museum are a mute and eloquent testimony to what is still the greatest nautical disaster in Canadian history.
The museum will host a summer-long commemoration of the sinking, including a memorial supper at the Hotel Rimouski and the unveiling of a new monument. Members of The Salvation Army, with an ensemble from the current Canadian Staff Band, will be in attendance. For more details, visit www.empress2014.ca.