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Joe Fortes – Vancouver’s First Lifeguard

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On February 1, 2013, Canada Post released a postage stamp of Joe Fortes celebrating Black History Month. The stamp’s release marks the 150th anniversary of Joe’s birth. The stamp was designed by Lara Minja.

Joseph (Joe) Seraphim Fortes was Vancouver’s first official lifeguard. He taught thousands of residents how to swim at English Bay Beach in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Joe was a shoeblack, bartender, porter, swimming instructor and lifeguard. He arrived in Vancouver on the Robert Kerr, debarking on September 30, 1885.

On February 9, 1863, Joe was born in Port of Spain (Republic of Trinidad and Tobago). The 1901 Vancouver census listed him as Trinidadian and Spanish speaking. At the age of 17 he left Trinidad for England where he lived for five years in Liverpool and learned to swim at St George’s Baths. He was an accomplished swimmer and diver winning a three-mile race across the Mersey River. He received a gold medal for life-saving and participated on an 11-person swim team in a tour of English and French seaside resorts. Joe saved more than 100 people from drowning at English Bay Beach, including John Hugo Ross, who later died in the sinking of the Titanic.

Around 1897, the City of Vancouver placed Joe on its payroll in recognition of his services as a lifeguard. He was later made a special police constable. He patrolled the beach from his cabin, which was moved in 1905 from the foot of Gilford Street to the bank above the beach. In 1910 the City of Vancouver honoured Joe for his years of service by presenting him with a gold watch and a cheque.

Joe Fortes was a local hero and upon his death in Vancouver in 1922, thousands of people, including aldermen, the mayor, chief of police, constables and citizens attended his funeral at Our Lady of Holy Rosary Cathedral. A moment of silence was held for Joe in the city’s schools. A flat stone with the inscription “JOE” marks his grave in Mountain View Cemetery. A fountain in honour of Joe stands in Alexandra Park across from English Bay Beach. It is inscribed with “Little children loved him.”

On May 20, 1976, the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library was dedicated in his honour. In 1985, one hundred years after he arrived in Canada, the Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House restaurant opened. The Vancouver Historical Society named Joseph Seraphim Fortes “Citizen of the Century” during Vancouver’s centennial year in 1986.

 

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