The Sinking of the Empress of Ireland – 100th Anniversary (May 29, 2014)

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Only a week and a half after the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland did I find any type of commemorative mention of the event – namely, a stamp collection at the post office. There was a major commemoration near the site in Quebec in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but one would have had to have been looking for it to find it. The news only mentioned the anniversary on the day itself.

Furthermore, for many, the newscast was the first time that they had ever heard of the Empress of Ireland. To recap, the Empress of Ireland was a ship that sank in the St. Lawrence (at the beginning of an otherwise routine crossing to Britain) after colliding with another ship in the nighttime fog. Over a thousand people, including over a hundred children, drowned or froze. Taking proportions into consideration, the ratio of deaths was much worse than the Titanic.

Why, then, has there been little publicity about the tragedy? Where is the blockbuster film? Why is this not an event every Canadian schoolchild knows about?

In the early summer of 1914, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was indeed a major news story. There was an inquiry into how the ships collided. A Salvation Army conference in England – to which a large number of the passengers had been headed – had a memorial service and placed empty chairs for their lost delegates. Stories of survival and loss filled the newspapers.

However, to be fair, in August of 1914, the First World War broke out. The war, followed by an influenza epidemic, dwarfed any other tragedy that came immediately before or after it. A thousand dead in a shipwreck? Compared to the number of soldiers and civilians killed in the First World War, a thousand was very small. A ship sinking was merely an unfortunate accident – no different than a bus or train or airplane today. It was a tragedy for those immediately affected, but not memorable.

The Empress of Ireland was not a big ship like the Titanic. It did not have many celebrities on its passenger list. It was sailing on a second-rate shipping route (transatlantic voyages from Canada were less prestigious than those from or to New York) and had made the trip dozens of times before. There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about the ship until it sank. It had all of the required safety equipment. No one had boasted that the ship was unsinkable. It had barely even begun its voyage and was not even in the open sea yet.

Furthermore, the ship sank in 14 minutes. If James Cameron wanted to make a film about the tragedy, he could have actually done the sinking in real time. There was little room for storytelling or dramatics. The survivors were too busy escaping the ship to notice much. Most of the victims drowned in their cabins (hopefully in their sleep). Those on shore who helped rescue survivors and witnessed the event remembered little but chaos. In other words, the sinking was more of an apocalyptic action film than a dramatic love story.

However, it was indeed a dramatic story. Those thousand victims were individuals with families, friends, livelihoods, careers, and dreams. The survivors were that as well, and they managed to put the horror of the tragedy behind them to continue their lives and pass the story on to their children. The Salvation Army in Toronto, the home base of over a hundred of the victims, still has an annual memorial.

Why shouldn’t there be a movie? Why aren’t there children’s books?

Ultimately, the Empress of Ireland was an accident – the sinking did not have widespread lessons to teach society or spawn any awareness campaigns. Nonetheless, it was a tragic accident that could have been avoided and perhaps that is indeed its legacy.

Accidents happen a lot. Sometimes, they lead to dramatic loss of life. Sometimes, it is hard to assign blame – and sometimes, there really is none. Other times, it really doesn’t matter because the tragedy overshadows everything else.

Who knows how those who died in the early morning of May 29, 1914 would have affected the world had they continued to live their lives? How many children they might have had? Would they have survived the sinking only to die on the battlefield?

Nothing is guaranteed.

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