Joe Fortes

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Not to be confused with Joseph Xavier "Joe" Forte, the American professional basketball player or Joe Forte, the American writer and painter.
Portrait of Joe Fortes, 1910
Joe Fortes standing on the beach at English Bay (Vancouver), Canada. This portrait was part of a collage in a Canada Post Stamp that honoured him.

Joseph Seraphim Fortes[1] (9 February 1863 - 4 February 1922) was a prominent figure in the early history of Vancouver. He was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on February 9, 1863.[2] After leaving his homeland in his mid-teens, he worked in Britain for several years. In 1884 he sailed around Cape Horn from Liverpool on the Robert Kerr, arriving in Burrard Inlet in September 1885. His name occurs repeatedly in the ship's log as Seraphim Fortes.

Joe Fortes Memorial Drinking Fountain in the West End's Alexandra Park by sculptor Charles Marega.

Mr. Fortes wandered into the Granville townsite and found work as a shoeblack. He was soon employed by the Sunnyside Hotel as a porter and roustabout. As the fledgling city burned to the ground in what would be known as the Great Fire, the young man escorted a married woman and her son to safety aboard his old ship, anchored in the harbour. He also salvaged much of the hotel guests’ luggage before the building was consumed.[3]

Making his home at English Bay, he lived in a tent on the beach during the milder months of the year. After the start of the 20th century, he moved into a cottage at the foot of Bidwell Street on the shore-side of Beach Avenue. His little house was later moved to the other side of the street, just east of Alexandra Park.

Joe Fortes devoted all of his free time to teaching children to swim and to patrolling the beach. In 1898, he rescued J.C. McCook, the newly appointed American consul for the Klondike gold rush town of Dawson City, who suffered an attack in the water while visiting the city.[4] The self-appointed unpaid guard continued to support himself by working odd jobs until, in 1900, the City appointed him its first official lifeguard.[5]

His contemporaries referred to him respectfully and lovingly as "Old Black Joe" or "English Bay Joe". The stocky, dark-skinned man was a friend and teacher to the children, a guard for the bathers and a hero to people in distress. He has been officially credited with saving 29 lives, yet it is believed that the real number is considerably higher.

In 1910 the City honoured Joe Fortes for his many years of service to the public by presenting him with a gold watch, a cheque and an illuminated address.

When Joe Fortes died on February 4, 1922, Vancouver held a record-breaking funeral procession for him. Mourners crowded into Holy Rosary Cathedral to bid farewell to a brave, kind and modest friend. Mounted police in dress uniform led the way to Mountain View Cemetery followed by the mayor and city councillors, as well as the police commission, the school board and the park board.[6] A flat stone marks his grave, simply inscribed: "JOE".

In June 1927 the citizens of Vancouver dedicated a monument to Joe Fortes. The fountain in Alexandra Park by sculptor Charles Marega bears the inscription: LITTLE CHILDREN LOVED HIM.

He is still remembered today. On May 20, 1976, the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library was dedicated to his name and in 1985, one hundred years after he arrived in Canada, the Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House restaurant opened.

In 1986, during Vancouver's centennial year, the Vancouver Historical Society named Joseph Seraphim Fortes "Citizen of the Century."[7]

In 2002, he was the subject of a National Film Board of Canada animated short Joe, directed by Jill Haras with a voice cast featuring Blu Mankuma.[8]

In 2013, Canada Post released a postage stamp of Joe Fortes on February 1st celebrating Black History Month. The stamp's release marks the 150th anniversary of Joe's birth. The stamp was designed by Lara Minja.[9]


  1. ^ Government of Canada 1901 Census records his name as "Joseph Fortis"
  2. ^ Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  3. ^ Hawthorn, Tom (8 February 2012). "Black history month a time to remember Joe Fortes". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  4. ^ Hawthorn, Tom (8 February 2012). "Black history month a time to remember Joe Fortes". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  5. ^ Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story
  6. ^ Hawthorn, Tom (8 February 2012). "Black history month a time to remember Joe Fortes". Globe and Mail. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  7. ^ The History of Metropolitan Vancouver
  8. ^ "Joe". Collection page. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 17 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Press Release of Stamp at the Canada Post Website.

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