The sinking of the "Empress of Ireland", which sank in 14 minutes on the night of May 29, 1914, near Rimouski, killing 1,012, was eclipsed by the disappearance of the Titanic two years earlier in the depths of the ocean. 'Atlantic and by the start of the First World War.
Yet it was here that this maritime tragedy, the largest in Canadian history, occurred. The remains of 600 bodies are still lying at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, 108 years after the tragedy, making the wreckage of this floating palace an important burial site.
Recall that it was a collision with the Norwegian collier "Storstad", by a thick fog, which opened the hull of the "Empress" like a cane. The “Storstard” indeed had a reinforced structure at the front to navigate in the ice and it was full of coal as it sailed towards Montreal, unlike the liner which returned to Liverpool, England.
In the documentary "To conquer the Empress of Ireland", the maritime historian and wreck hunter Samuel Côté is interested in the aftermath of the shipwreck of the 168-meter liner, in the work of the divers in 1914 which allowed to fish out bodies, letters, gold ingots and a safe, as well as to the research carried out by Quebec adventurers to find the wreckage, 50 years after its disappearance at a depth of 42 meters and 8 km from the side.
We are introduced to some of these divers who, without the help of the wealthy Rimouski businessman Aubert Brillant, would never have been able to reach the site where the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company's transatlantic liner, in service since 1906, abruptly ended his years of service. The ship transported, during its 192 transatlantic crossings between Liverpool and Quebec, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who came to populate Canada. Travellers, business people and wealthy people have also occupied its cabins.
For Samuel Côté, for whom this is the first documentary, the exercise is intended to be a “duty of memory”. To avoid offering rehash, he waited to have new information in hand. "I'm not a diver, but I dive in archives," he said with a smile on his face.
The most interesting elements relate to the research of 1964. Quebec adventurers from Gatineau and Montreal landed at Pointe-au-Père, today Rimouski, with a boat that was no match for the St. Lawrence River .
“Aubert Brillant controlled hundreds of millions at the time. Without his help, things weren't happening in 1964. Without him and his boat, La Canadienne, the guys would probably have gone home,” said Samuel Côté. In the documentary, he also gives voice to men like Gaston Fillion, Donald Tremblay and Claude Villeneuve, who have found the “Empress”.
“They could have lost their lives there. They have achieved a feat by finding one of the most prestigious wrecks in the world. Of all the ocean liner wrecks built at the beginning of the 20th century, the “Empress” is the best preserved in the world.”
In the documentary, Gaston Fillion and Claude Villeneuve are brought back above the wreckage for the very first time. They are accompanied by Éric Lavoie, the son of 1964 captain Mario Lavoie. Thanks to a robot, they are shown for the very first time in 48 years what is left of the liner. The two former divers are moved and have forgotten nothing of their early twenties.
A museum has been set up in Rimouski, the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père, where the many artifacts that have been brought to the surface over the years are kept.
In a second documentary on the "Empress of Ireland", Samuel Côté wants to pay tribute to the five divers who died on the site in recent decades and present the work to recover parts.
Produced by Casadel Films, the documentary “To conquer the Empress of Ireland” will be broadcast this Saturday at 9 p.m. on Historia.