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.
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.
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.