John Joseph Cloutier was born on Nov. 27, 1961, to Darlene and Marcel Cloutier in Vanderhoof, B.C. A year later, the family moved to Prince George, about 100 km east, and then eventually on to Kelowna; Marcel was a hard-working mechanic, and Darlene stayed home with the four boys (John was second-oldest). Once John got his driver’s licence, he’d pile his brothers into a van and take them up to the ski hill. Even with his older friends there, “he’d spend time with us, the rookie novices,” younger brother Greg remembers. “On the way home, we’d fall asleep, pooped right out, knowing he’s going to get us home.”
After high school, John found his way to Edmonton, then Calgary, where he got work at a concrete cutting business. He soon met Janice, the salad girl at a local Burger King. “I was cutting up salad at the back,” she says, when she saw John stroll in. “I said, ‘That’s the guy I’m going to marry.’ ” He asked for her phone number. Janice’s father didn’t approve at the time—John was 21, she was all of 15—but their courtship took off anyway. On their first date, John drove her out to a nearby school, “parked his Pinto car, turned on his headlights, faced them at the field, and cranked his tunes,” she says. “He danced me through the field for two whole hours.”
They were married four years later, and had their first son, Kyle, in 1987. (Sons David and Trent followed in 1989 and 1993.) Always the provider, John started his own concrete cutting business, called Cut N Rock Ltd., which he ran for 27 years. David, who along with Trent worked for his father, describes some of their most common jobs: “He’d take a hydraulic saw and make windows and doors bigger” to adhere to fire code, he says. John and his sons worked out of the family garage, loading up tools they’d need for the day into the work truck, a white Ford F350 that was the backbone of their business. The massive hydraulic saw rode in the back.
John worked seven-day weeks while Janice stayed home with the boys when they were younger. He seemed unstoppable: when John injured his hand, he’d patch it up with duct tape and get back to work. Once, he put out a fire in a client’s condominium with a hose. He’d still make time for his family, bringing his wife flowers and writing her poems. They’d often turn on some music and dance in the living room. “And he was famous for his unicycling,” Janice laughs. Neighbours called him the “unicycle man.”
About 10 years ago, John decided to take a Sunday off—his first, Janice says, in seven years. He went dirt-biking outside the city, when the clutch got stuck and he slammed into a fence. John’s left leg was shattered and, despite surgeries, he was mostly bedridden for three years. Getting around on crutches or in a wheelchair, John hired a new worker to help out with the business. But the man didn’t have his driver’s licence, so John would drive him to job sites. Then he’d ride his bicycle—rigged with an idle left pedal, which he’d rest his bad foot on, pedalling with the right—to hospital for physio, and come back to the site to pick up the worker.
John’s left leg would only move about 15 degrees, but he was eventually back on the job full time (he had to give up unicycling). “Even with a bad leg, it was hard to keep up with him,” says Kyle, 23. But now there was another problem: a spate of robberies in the neighbourhood. “Over three years, they broke into our garage four times,” David says, costing them thousands of dollars in equipment. John started slipping a crowbar through the tracks on the garage’s car doors, so they couldn’t be opened from the outside.
On Nov. 28, John and David were settling in to watch the Grey Cup when David smelled smoke coming from the garage. (The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined.) “I’ve never seen my dad move so fast,” he says. Without putting on his shoes, John grabbed the keys, rushed outside and, David says, “I realized he was going to run in.” Unlocking the smaller man-sized door, John disappeared inside the garage. “The firefighters were just behind,” David says. “I told them, ‘He’s going to go look for his truck.’ ” Firefighters couldn’t enter the garage through the man-sized door because of the extreme heat and smoke and had to cut through the larger car door to reach him. They found him slumped over the hood of his truck. John died in hospital. He was 49 years old.