Today, February 9th, is the birthday of one of Vancouver’s early heroes, and the man voted “Vancouverite of the Century” in 1986 by the Vancouver Historical Society. Joe Fortes was a Caribbean-Canadian lifeguard, swim teacher, and bartender who saved hundreds of lives during the thirty-four years he spent watching over the waters of English Bay. In On This Spot’s new video, you can learn more about Joe’s incredible life and the lasting impact he had on the city of Vancouver.
Born in Trinidad, Joe arrived in Vancouver in 1885 and, despite the challenges that faced him as a Black, working-class immigrant, quickly became a beloved part of Vancouver. Not only did he devote his life to ensuring that English Bay remained a safe and peaceful place, but it was he who originally popularized that beach as a swimming spot and petitioned Vancouver’s mayor to create a road to the water.
Joe volunteered his time as a lifeguard for many years, and was given an official position in 1900. Upon his death in 1922, at the age of 57, the city held a civic funeral attended by tens of thousands. It remains to this day the largest funeral in Vancouver’s history, a fitting ceremony for a man whose dedication to kindness changed the lives of many.
Joe’s touching story inspired us to make On This Spot’s first video feature, but it won’t be our last. We’ll be making more videos in the future to explore Canada’s unique history in a new and exciting medium.