British Columbia

Vancouver's first lifeguard Joe Fortes died 100 years ago. What can be learned from his legacy?

Fortes died 100 years ago on Feb. 4, 1922, and while his legacy has been recognized by the city in various ways over the years, some in Vancouver's Black community say they think of Fortes' story in a different way.

Fortes is credited with saving dozens of lives

Vancouver's first lifeguard, Joe Fortes, is pictured here in 1905 at English Bay beach. He's credited with teaching people how to swim and saving dozens of lives. (The City of Vancouver archives)

A century after his death, Joe Fortes is being remembered for his commitment to community and kindness as a Black lifeguard in a predominantly white Vancouver.

The Trinidad and Tobago-born seaman, who arrived in Vancouver aboard a trade ship in 1885, is credited with saving at least 29 lives and teaching "innumerable" people how to swim, according to Lisa Anne Smith, co-author of Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story.

Fortes died on Feb. 4, 1922. But his legacy lives on, says Smith, as a testament to the impact people can have on others by staying true to who they are and offering assistance wherever it's needed.

"If we could extrapolate just a little bit of that persona of Joe into our own lives, we'd be all the richer for it," she said.

Lisa Anne Smith holds her book, Our Friend Joe, outside the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum in Vancouver, B.C. Smith says Fortes' life reflects how people can have an impact on the community by being true to who they are. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Citizen of the Century'

Seraphim Joseph Fortes was most likely born in Port of Spain around 1863. He moved to Liverpool, England around the age of 17 and worked as a seaman aboard the trade ship, the Robert Kerr.

The ship came to the settlement of Granville, now known as Vancouver, in 1885. According to Smith's book, Fortes and his fellow workers were discharged because the ship was damaged.

Fortes decided to stay in then-Granville and worked as a bartender and hotel porter. He swam in English Bay beach in his spare time.

In the 1890s, he began to volunteer as a lifeguard and swimming instructor — a part of his life that was chronicled in the Vancouver Daily World newspaper, which reported Fortes saving a woman from drowning at the beach in July 1897.

People share stories about Vancouver's 1st paid lifeguard

1 year ago
Duration 0:59
In a 1964 CBC special on Joe Fortes' life, people reminisce about the time they spent with him at English Bay beach.

He was officially put on the city's payroll in 1900 after citizens petitioned for him to be paid for his service, although some city councillors felt a salary was out of order for the work he was doing, says Smith.

Fortes is pictured here teaching children how to swim at English Bay beach in Vancouver, B.C. in 1912. (The City of Vancouver archives)

While Fortes' legacy has been recognized in Vancouver in various ways — a drinking fountain has been installed in his memory and he was named "Citizen of the Century" in 1986 — some local Black advocates say they think of Fortes' story in a different way.

Fortes, for instance, performed lifeguarding duties for many years for free before he received a monthly salary from the city.

"What I see here is, a White Vancouver patting itself on the back for being extremely generous to a Black man, as if, with some exception, that he was a capable Black man," said June Francis, chair of Hogan's Alley Society. 

Francis adds that for her, Fortes' life is representative of the ways in which Black people, despite the odds against them at that time, found ways to contribute to society while carving out a life for themselves. 

Chair of Hogan's Alley Society June Francis says there are different ways to view Fortes' life story. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But little is known about Fortes' connection to Vancouver's Black community, says Francis. 

She says when Fortes died in 1922, Vancouver's Black community, Hogan's Alley, was just starting to form. 

The alley ran between Union and Prior Streets from Main Street to Jackson Avenue, and was home to many Black people from the early 1900s to the late 1960s.

Fortes didn't get to experience the fullness of the community, which later had a church, restaurants and other businesses.

Smith's book does highlight Fortes' relationship with at least one Black family, the Scurrys, whose rooming house Fortes lived in before moving to English Bay. He remained close with them until his death.

Fortes didn't keep in close contact with his own family, and never married or had children.

The certificate of appreciation given to Joe Fortes by the City of Vancouver in 1910 is pictured here at the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum. Fortes' oil lamp can also be seen to the right of the certificate. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Despite being surrounded by hundreds of people at the beach, Francis says when she sees photos of Fortes, he's usually pictured by himself or with white people.

"I see isolation. I see social isolation. I see the ways in which he's a token of something."

A historical figure

Parts of Fortes' life can be still be found in Vancouver: his oil lamp, a framed certificate of appreciation from the city, and a portrait of Fortes are on display at the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum. 

Lisa Anne Smith, co-author of Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story, is pictured at the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum in Vancouver. B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fortes' porch chair and one of his silk handkerchiefs can also be found in the Museum of Vancouver archives.

While parts of Fortes' life may always remain a mystery, Smith says he has cemented himself as a historical figure in Vancouver for helping so many people in the water.

The gravestone of Seraphim "Joe" Fortes at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. Fortes died in 1922. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Francis says she hopes Canadians take the time to learn about Fortes and other historical figures, and consider Black History Month an opportunity to flesh out the complexity of Canada's history.

"We should all be angry that things have been hidden from us, that they have been disguised or erased so that we don't have the full story."

On Friday, the City of Vancouver declared Feb. 9 Joe Fortes Day, in honour of his birthday.

BBIC Banner

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more here.