Black History in the West End – The Joe Fortes Story

Pictured: Joe Fortes at English Bay

In honour of Black History Month, we wanted to share the story of Joe Fortes, a well-loved Black Canadian who was an integral part of the West End community and was even named,”Vancouver Citizen of the Century” by Vancouver Historical Society in 1986.

“West End Best End” mural by CARSON TING & ANNIE CHEN celebrating both Joe Fortes and the local ecosystem. Located at 990 Nicola Street – in partnership with Vancouver Pride Society & Van Mural Fest.

Joe Fortes was born on February 9, 1863, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He left the familiarity of his island nation for an opportunity in Liverpool, “The New York of Europe,” to work at sea. His labor on the water eventually led him to Vancouver, or as it was called at the time, “Granville.” After being thrashed by unrelenting storms and beaten by violent waves, Robert Kerr, the vessel Joe worked aboard, succumbed to its fate in Vancouver’s Harbour; this is where Joe would put down his roots. 

Joe started working as a shoeblack at the Sunnyvale Hotel, which is where his legacy of heroics would begin. During the Great Vancouver Fire, Joe braved the flames, saving a member of parliament’s wife and eight-year-old child from the raging inferno and rowing them to safety. This act of valiancy would be the first of many. 

Joe was a man of many trades and worked several odd jobs, one of which was transporting equipment from Gastown to Jericho Beach. He finished his tasks early on a particular journey and had ample time to explore the surrounding coastline. His curious nature led him to the beautiful white sand beach named “Euyelshun” by the Squamish Peoples, which translates to “Good Footing,” today we know this popular spot by the name of English Bay. Swimming beaches were few and far between along Vancouver’s rocky shoreline, so he brought the good news to friends, and the spot gained popularity among locals. 

Every summer throughout the 1890’s Joe would take it upon himself to mind the beach, ensure the beachgoers’ safety, and even gave swimming lessons to both children and adults alike. Joe wasn’t in it for the recognition; although he was becoming quite the household name, he was doing it free of cost out of the goodness of his heart and for his love of children. His good deeds didn’t go unnoticed, and by 1900 a petition containing thousands of signatures was presented to the city council demanding that Joe be given an official title and salary. The motion was approved. Joe was given a salary and officially designated as the Swimming Instructor, Lifeguard, and Special Constable of English Bay. 

Pictured: The memorial fountain located in Alexandra Park honouring Joe Fortes, “Little children loved him” is inscribed in the stone to remember all the children he saved and taught to swim. The fountain was sculpted by artist Charles Marega.

During his time at English Bay, he is credited for saving 29 lives and teaching three generations of Vancouverites how to swim. He was a loveable character with a warm heart that touched everyone lucky to know him. When Joe Fortes passed away from pneumonia on February 4, 1922, all of Vancouver mourned his loss. The city arranged a record-breaking funeral service that brought in tens of thousands of attendees. The massive outpour of support to commemorate Joe’s life spoke volumes about the positive impact that he left on the community. 

To this day, Joe’s legacy is not forgotten. From a mural and fountain tributing his warm-heartedness to having a steakhouse and library named in his honour, we will always remember his virtuous contributions to our community.  


Black History Month – Poster Art Campaign

Poster created by Sade Alexis

In 2019 Vancouver city council voted to name eight West End laneways after local historical figures. One of the people who had a laneway named after them was Rosemary Brown – a prominent Black female community champion who filled many important roles throughout her life including politician, activist, writer, feminist, educator, and mother. The Young Ideas group decided to take time during this year’s Black History Month to honour Rosemary’s legacy by partnering with a local artist on a neighbourhood postering campaign. 

The artist that the group worked with is Sade Alexis, a talented local Black artist and Emily Carr graduate who the Young Ideas group came to know through her beautiful portrait series – “Speaking To My Ancestors”. 

Sade has a wonderful back catalogue of portraiture work that you can view on her Instagram @sade.b.alexis, as well as a solo exhibition “Safe Home Sarah” currently on view at the Cheeky Proletariat (located at 320 Carrall Street) with Black Arts Vancouver. 

There can be a huge impact and power in using visual art to share and honour Black history. Sade expresses that her art is her activism, and the best way that she knows how to understand a person’s life and work. Black people living in Vancouver don’t always get to see a lot of Black faces around them, and through portraiture work Sade aims to make this experience less lonely. Some of the power of Sade’s portraiture work comes from its accessibility, as almost anyone can interact with her work and garner something from it.

Sade explains that while growing up she had believed the commonly heard myth of ‘there are no Black people in Vancouver’. Discovering the work of Rosemary Brown had been a comforting experience because it evidenced the existence of Vancouver’s Black community being heard, a community that has been here for many years and continues to be here today.

Sade considers Rosemary as somebody who paved the way for her to do what she does today, someone who made things possible for Vancouver’s Black community. Sade also shared a personal connection to Rosemary through her father, who years ago used to run in the same circles as her.

Of course Rosemary Brown is not the only Black person in Vancouver who did important work, and learning about Rosemary can be a good starting point for learning more of the Black history of Vancouver. 

One last reflection from the artist of this piece was to remind viewers not to simply limit your engagement to Black History Month – support Black artists, support Black businesses, and learn Black history year round.

Sade will have some more cool projects coming up in the future, so be sure and follow her on Instagram to stay in the loop!

If you would like to get involved with this community postering campaign and display one of these posters in a public place in your apartment building then please contact

If you see these posters up around the neighbourhood you can help to spread the word by snapping a picture and tagging us and the artist on social media.

We also distributed the artwork straight to program participants homes; through our seniors meal delivery program and our food hamper delivery program.

Read more about Black history in the West End on our other blog post – the Joe Fortes story.

Last summer we posted some Anti-Racism Resources that included information on where you can learn, spend, and donate. Earlier this month we also posted some information on the origins of Black History Month in Canada.

Check out the website of Black Lives Matter Vancouver.

Black History Month in Canada

The month of February marks Black History Month here in Canada. Black History Month seeks to appreciate the significant impact Black Canadians have had on contributing to this nation’s prosperity. Black History Month is also an opportunity to recognize Black Canadians’ achievements and experiences, whose stories, unfortunately, were often absent from the mainstream history curriculum. 

This month is especially critical in 2021 as the world continues to witness the unjust treatment of members of the black community, not only in the U.S. but here on Canadian soil. We’ve observed how racism is rooted deeply in our justice systems and how it continues to perpetuate the discrimination of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). At Gordon Neighbourhood House, we honour the positive contributions that Black Canadians continue to make in Canada and our community. We believe in the fair and respectful treatment of all community members regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, ability, religion, ancestry, political affiliation, language, financial status, age, record of offenses, immigration, or family status. 

A Timeline of Black History Month in Canada 

The celebration of Black History Month in Canada was inspired by the legacy of Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, a well-respected Black author, historian, journalist, and the founder of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Dr. Woodson dedicated his life to spreading awareness of the Black American story, which played a critical role in American history but was often disregarded to pave the way for a colonial narrative. Dr. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” founded Negro History Week, the forerunner of what would eventually become Black History Month, which was declared a national observance in the United States in 1976. 

Stanley G. Grizzle, president of the Toronto division of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, was credited with hosting the first-ever Negro History Week in Canada on February 13, 1950. This event was inspired by similar celebrations held by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in the United States. One of the key speakers at the event was a prominent female figure in Canadian history whose efforts were credited with being the first in uniting the African-Canadian community; her name was Kay Livingstone. Kay Livingstone was a dedicated social activist & organizer, broadcaster, and actor who established the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CNWA), now known as the Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC). The CNWA would continue to organize Negro History Week events for years to come after the first official celebration in 1950.

After the success that the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) had in filing a petition in Ontario proclaiming February as Black History Month in 1993, Rosemary Sadlier, president of OBHS, proposed Black History Month be recognized across Canada. This idea was met with immense support from Parliament Secretary and Member of Parliament, Jean Augustine. Augustine was the first black woman elected to the House of Commons in 1993 and the first black woman to be appointed to cabinet. As an educator, Augustine noticed that curriculums rarely mentioned black contributions to Canadian history, which needed to change. Through their hard work, passion, and dedication, their proposal was approved by the House of Commons on December 14, 1995. The first declaration of Black History Month went into effect the following February. Although this was a significant success, it wasn’t until 2008 that Canada completed its parliamentary position on Black History Month on March 14, 2008, when the Senate officially recognized Black History Month. Senator Donald Oliver put forth this motion in February of 2008, the first black man in Canada to be elected to Senate.