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Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story

By Lisa Anne Smith, Barbara Rogers

Review By John Belshaw

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013  | p. 172-4

As one Daily Province journalist put it in 1916, “to write an article about English Bay without referring to Joe Fortes, would be like Hamlet without the Prince” (118). For nearly forty years the legendary lifeguard and erstwhile swimming instructor was a fixture in the West End. His funeral was an enormous public event and his legacy is recalled in a memorial at Alexandra Park, in the name of a Vancouver Public Library branch, and likewise in that of a downtown restaurant. Few politicians of the era were similarly treated. This new biography sheds light on why Seraphim “Joe” Fortes is so deeply etched into the narrative of early Vancouver.

What we know of Fortes is circumscribed. He served drinks in a Gastown saloon (another job that put him in the open) and lived in a tiny tent/cottage on English Bay (which afforded little privacy). His front yard was the beach, a public space. His size, colour, and reputation made him stand out wherever he went. But his personal relationships, his relationship with his family in the West Indies, his place and date of birth, his beliefs, even the pronunciation of his last name – was it For-tez or Fortz? – are uncertain. In Our Friend Joe phrases like “it is safe to assume” recur throughout. We know a little about Fortes and it is safe to assume from those details that he, for example, attended Mass (as a good Catholic should), followed the tragedy of the Titanic with interest (as a lifeguard ought), or had friends to help him move house (as a bartender might). In other words, mysteries remain.

Fortes was part of an early wave of immigrants who came to Vancouver before the railway, before the fire, before incorporation. He is both typical and atypical of those around him in the city’s first days. Like his newcomer neighbours, Fortes spoke with an accent fashioned abroad. Global movement was a ready possibility for this generation: the path to Granville took Fortes first to Liverpool then around Cape Horn. Like so many others, Fortes had to be a jack-of-all-trades to get by. And he had to get by in a colonial setting in which power relations disadvantaged non-whites. He had to fit in. Fortes’ strategy, it seems, was to hide himself in plain view, to be so obvious as to be part of the scenery. Few of his contemporaries, however, would find their image passed from hand to hand around the world on postcards.

What was it that made Fortes outstanding? Certainly he saved many lives along the beach – the estimates run from two dozen to more than a hundred – which is, of course, what lifeguards do. And, despite Fortes’ own efforts to address the problem of poor swimming skills among the general public, drowning was a much greater risk in the Edwardian years than it is now. His memorial states “little children loved him” because he demonstrated infinite patience, enjoyed teaching the basics of swimming, and he was something of a genuine hero of the sort we usually call “unsung,” all of which goes some way to answering the question of why Fortes remains interesting to us.

And then there’s the issue of race. Our Friend Joe does not attend to this head-on and perhaps that is as it should be. This is not a conventional “scholarly” text; remarkably, neither Sherry Edmunds-Flett’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography nor sports historian John Wong’s article “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Black” are cited. But it is a highly sympathetic biography and it is written to be accessible to the widest audience. It will inform another generation’s understanding of the pre-Depression city and its people, and it does so with a sensitive appreciation of not only Fortes’ life, but also his times. The authors show, too, how surprisingly tenuous Fortes’ situation was throughout his aquatic career and they are able to make some sense of how Fortes became worthy of his stature.

But it cannot be denied, when his contemporaries looked at Fortes, more than any other thing they saw: a black man. Occupation, character, sexuality, creed, economic status … none of these categories of perception could trump skin colour in the age of “White Canada Forever.” The authors speculate that the Anti-Asian movement that reached a fevered pitch in the first decade of the century may have caused Fortes to feel “some degree of concern on his own account. He had been subjected to the occasional derogatory remark….” (84). Indeed, his whole life in Vancouver was boxed in by derogatory, racially-framed practices. Fortes held a string of low-status jobs – for example, as “a porter and shoeblack … widely considered to be among the lowliest, most menial of jobs” (30) – and even his lauded career as a lifeguard was neither secure nor especially remunerative. Fortes plunged into bureaucratic cracks where the Police and the Parks Board seemed happy to keep him. Recognition came his way, to be sure. Probably no other black Vancouverite has been so weighted down with medals and honours and interviews, all of which was richly deserved. And yet the journalists who built Fortes’ reputation – even those reporting on his final fatal illness – consistently described him as the “coloured lifeguard” (135). Nor, in some cases, could they resist transcribing his words into a drawl straight from the Old South; perhaps a Trinidadian accent bounced off their cloth ears, but it is more likely that, in Vaudeville-era Vancouver, a black man was meant to say things like “lil,” “Ah’m alright,” and “the fus’ John Collins I ever mixed was fo’ George Keefer … who said it was jus’ fine!” This confusion carries over to Fortes’ funeral, when Holy Rosary Cathedral’s organist (the delightfully-named Miss Adele Heritage) gets things underway with Stephen “Camptown Races” Foster’s blackface minstrel hymn, “Old Black Joe” (135). The same song rings out at the unveiling of the memorial fountain five years later (142). Not captured in this book but worth noting are these mealy words of inclusion offered by the Province on the occasion of Fortes’ death: “whitest heart in blackest skin.” He is, finally, “our friend, Joe,” the man with whom everyone appears to be on a first-name basis, an informality that extends even to his headstone. All very chummy until we remember that he ought to be “Mr. Fortes.” It is impossible to escape the sense that Fortes was seen because he was black. Would a white lifeguard have attracted similar attention? Certainly none has.

Wayde Compton has written elsewhere on the ironic invisibility of black Vancouverites. He observes:  “A scattering, an integration, partly forced, partly wanted, has made for no place, no site, no centres residential or commercial, no set of streets vilified or tourist-friendly, and no provincial or federal riding that a politician would see as black enough to ever rate the wooing of a community vote.” Was Fortes somehow representative of this elusive demographic? Smith and Rogers claim that Vancouver’s “coloured population” showed up for the memorial unveiling and the Reverend U.S. Robinson – surely no Catholic? – spoke on their behalf (143). Did Fortes’ selflessness purchase respectability for other black Vancouverites or did his Catholic, West Indian identity separate him from black Protestants who hailed from Nova Scotia and the States? How, one wonders, did he see himself? The Sun wrote approvingly of Fortes in 1925 that “No city, province or nation can afford to be without its heroes.” In a city that has made a cult of physical fitness, perhaps we can now see Fortes as he might have liked:  as a man who was at home in his body and who did great things with it.

Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story
Lisa Anne Smith and Barbara Rogers 
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2012. 180 pp, $21.95 paper