Jean Guy Potvin was born on Nov. 20, 1967, in the northern Quebec pulp-and-paper town of Alma. He was the youngest of 12 children born to shoemakers Marcelle Michaud and Joseph-Alfred Potvin, and grew up in the family home, adjacent to the business. After an early childhood that featured pranks such as flushing hockey pucks down the toilet, Jean found a more productive pastime: fixing old toasters and electrical equipment. By the time he was in high school, he was fixing cars. He studied mechanics at college in Rimouski, but hated the program—he had to spend more time with books than engines—and after a year moved to Chicoutimi, enrolling in an auto mechanics course.
When he was 23, he began dating Mélanie Néron, a Charlevoix native who’d fallen hard for his sense of fun and energy. Within two years they’d decided to marry and move to B.C., to find work and learn to speak English. Mélanie, a daycare worker, flew out first. Jean followed in the car, towing a trailer full of mechanic’s tools. Vancouver was too big and too busy, so they settled in the bedroom community of Abbotsford, where each had landed jobs. Soon, they had a house, and three girls: Noémie, Mélina and Rébecca. By then, Jean, an extremely hard worker (“the stubborn Frenchman,” his best friend Jon Merrick affectionately dubbed him), had become a heavy-duty mechanic for Fraser Valley Septic Tank Services. He was a workaholic, often spending his days off working on friends’ cars.
On May 1, 2003, he was fixing a street sweeper, working beneath the large vehicle. Because it was a quick, simple job, he hadn’t secured the tank with a lock bar. But Jean slipped, knocking a lever, sending the tank crashing down on top of him. His friend, mechanic Harvey Jones, jumped on a forklift, which he used to lift the tank off Jean.
When Jon and Mélanie got to the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, they didn’t recognize him. Jean’s face was bruised and swollen, and he was bleeding from the eyes, nose, and ears. Whether he would live was an open question. His siblings flew from Quebec to keep vigil. After six days in a coma, Jean awoke to learn that he’d suffered a brain injury, and was paralyzed from the waist down. Because of a tracheotomy, he wasn’t able to speak for three weeks. He communicated by pointing to letters on a board.
“Really dark periods” followed, says Jon. Jean, now confined to a wheelchair, had trouble concentrating and suffered ugly mood swings. At a low point, he told Mélanie to take their daughters, live their lives, and leave him behind. But to the children—then 3, 5 and 7—it didn’t matter whether he was walking or in a wheelchair. “He was just Dad,” says Jon. Even little Rébecca learned to lift his 36-lb. wheelchair into the van. Jean would later tell Mélanie their love had saved him.
They bought a new house: a ranch-style dwelling that allowed Jean to move around more freely. Determined not to let his injury affect his mobility, Jean learned to drive in a vehicle equipped with hand controls. In winter, the family hit the slopes every weekend, mainly Whistler and Cypress Mountain, Jean on a sit-ski (when he fell, the girls would race to be first to help him up). And they began camping again in places like Thurston Meadows on the Chilliwack River (“Mélanie learned how to tow the trailer, and back it in like an expert,” says Jon). After a while, it became difficult for Jean to spend the night, so he’d stay at the campsite until nine o’clock, roasting marshmallows with the kids; when it was time to pack it in, he’d head home, returning first thing in the morning. Sometimes he rode out on his hand cycle. He also bought a Segway, worked out at the gym every day, swam and learned to scuba dive.
Jean began mentoring others with spinal cord injuries, taking them on bus rides, to the race track and to the zoo, and became a public speaker for WorkSafeBC—telling his story so others might avoid taking “shortcuts” and getting hurt. Recently, he’d started an office job in Vancouver (which, when the cost of gas was factored in, earned him less than the disability pension he was required to turn down). “But he got to help people, and feel useful again,” says Jon. The darkness had lifted.
On Sept. 11, at 8:30 p.m., Jean waved goodbye to his family at their campsite, this time at Cultus Lake in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. He drove off in a red Toyota Camry he’d owned just nine days, stereo blaring, a smile across his face. That was the last time they saw him. Three weeks later, Jean was found at the bottom of a steep, densely treed cliff off a winding stretch of Highway 3, east of Hope; it appears he’d driven off the road. He was 41.