One of Canada’s greatest maritime disasters has been a largely untold story, simply because of an issue of timing.
When the RMS Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence River on May 29, 1914, the 1,012 lives lost made the accident Canada’s most devastating peacetime marine tragedy. Even though the ship was a contemporary of the RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania, its fate is much lesser known, because with the outbreak of the First World War less than two months later, the eyes of the world were understandably drawn to many different arenas of tragedy.
Canada Post is looking to bring this Canadian story new recognition, with the release of a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress. The new issue includes a permanent rate stamp, available in a booklet of 10, and in a pane of 16. Canada Post produced 200,000 booklets and 75,000 panes, both printed by Lowe Martin using lithography in seven colours. The P stamp shows the ship coming towards the viewer, allowing one to view its impressive size, with the words “Empress of Ireland 1914-2014” overprinted along the lower half. The Empress of Ireland measured 172 metres (569.8 feet) long and 20 metres (65.5 feet) wide, with eight decks, the highest towering 14 metres (45 feet) above the waterline.
The full pane includes four unique tabs, all providing a glimpse into life on board the Empress. With decor and accommodations reminiscent of a grand railway hotel, the Empress was a floating resort. Its interior was stylishly finished in decorative woods and finely crafted woodwork. The ship boasted a children’s play areas in all classes, a cricket pitch, and open promenade decks for first- and second-class passengers. Canada Post has also released an international-rate souvenir sheet; official first-day cover; two postage-paid postcards; and a 100th anniversary collector’s set.
Built in Liverpool in 1906 for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s (CPR) steamship arm – the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company – the Empress was used to transport mail and passengers, mainly immigrants, between Liverpool and Quebec (the summer route) or Liverpool and Saint Johns (the winter route). During its eight years of service between 1906 and 1914, an estimated 117,000 immigrants came to Canada, as many as 80,000 of whom boarded CPR trains and continued west, settling there. According to Canada Post, one in 30 Canadians can trace his or her roots to a relative who immigrated to this country via the Empress.
The Empress’s voyages came to an end in the early hours of May 29, 1914 just east of Rimouski, Que., when the ship collided with a Norwegian coal ship, the SS Storstad, in dense fog, and sank in 14 minutes. In all, 1,012 of the 1,477 passengers and crew lost their lives.
A detailed account of the sinking has been provided to CSN by writer Richard Logan, and may be found on page 8. The cancel on the domestic stamp has been chosen as Pointe-au-Pere, Que., because it is the closest location to the site of the sinking, and it is the home of the Empress Museum – Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père. The domestic stamp was designed by Isabelle Toussaint, while the international-rate stamp was designed by Susan Scott.
The cancel for the international one is Rimouski, Que., which is located 16 kilometres west of Pointe-au-Pere, because it was the site where survivors and victims were initially brought. According to Anick Losier, media relations director with Canada Post, the international stamp was designed from an oil on canvas painting by Greek artist Aristides Balanos. Balanos lived and work in Montreal for several years, but is now living near Aix en Provence, France. Canada Post commissioned Balanos for this work. Canada Post has also produced 5,000 uncut press sheets that include the names of those who lost their lives – but they are printed in hidden ink visible only under black light.