Trinidad born Joe Fortes was Vancouver’s first lifeguard

Joe Fortes was born in Trinidad, died 100 years ago, and was Vancouver’s first lifeguard


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.

Joe Fortes Canada Post Stamp

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.

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.

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.

Joe Fortes

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.

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.

Joe Fortes on the job

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.

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.

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.

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

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.