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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: J.J.'s Ranch

"I attribute the success of our business to our family because we have always worked together really hard."

Anne Dupuis and her husband Gerry had no intention of getting into the hospitality business when they purchased a hotel in Schumacher more than 20 years ago.

"We saw it for sale in the paper and my brother's wife had just passed away," she said. "We bought it (along with other family members) so my brother could keep working and it would be an investment for us."

But things didn't work out as planned and the couple eventually owned it themselves.

"J.J.'s Ranch was new for us. It's not like a regular business because you have to wear so many hats. We had no experience in that field except for music and entertaining," Anne said.

The business, which originally included a bar, restaurant and hotel rooms, kept the couple busy while they both held other full-time jobs. In addition to operating and managing the facility, they also performed there on weekends.

"I have been playing music since 1972," Anne said. "I play rhythm guitar and sing. At our big family gatherings, we would all play an instrument. One day my father told me I was good enough to start playing at a hotel so I started with my husband, my mom and some brothers."

J.J.'s Ranch provided a great opportunity for the family to keep performing and was instrumental in launching the singing career of daughter Leslie-Anne McKee, who currently acts as operations manager for the business. Anne's mother, 86-year-old Elisabeth Johnson, still sings at the Ranch from time to time and is a regular fixture at the business. She was inducted into the Northern Ontario Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Anne's son, J.J. (the business is named after him), won a contest for song writing and sings as well.

"Music is very much a part of who we are as a family," Anne said.

Those familial ties also spread to the community as J.J.'s Ranch has hosted several fundraisers and benefits throughout the years for individuals in need, community groups and international relief funds.

"People come up with ideas and the Ranch takes on the organizing work and provides entertainment such as karaoke or a live band. We are open to any idea and welcome them," Anne said.

It has also been home to wedding ceremonies with a justice of the peace, birthday parties, and has hosted several unique events including a winter beach party (complete with sand) and an annual Elvis Birthday Bash that draws capacity crowds.

When there isn't a special event, customers gather for a night of camaraderie and may try their hand at darts, pool or venture on stage for karaoke.

While the couple's daughter has taken over the operations of the business, Anne and her husband are still involved.

"We are in the background now but it's hard to let go. I do the decorating and a few other things but it keeps us busy."

There have been other changes at the Ranch – there is no longer a restaurant and the rooms are filled with longtime occupants, who Anne refers to as her extended family. But new events and features, such as a fire pit in the outside patio, keep the regulars and new customers coming back.

"I attribute the success of our business to our family because we have always worked together really hard," Anne said. "We stick together and never give up."

She is also proud of her Aboriginal heritage and her maternal great, great grandfather signed Treaty 9 in 1906.

"Many people don't know we are Aboriginal," she said. "But like our music, it is certainly part of who and what we are."

Anne and Gerry never thought they would ever run a business like J.J.'s Ranch. And even though it was a big undertaking, she said she can't think of doing anything else.

"We would do it all over again if we could," she said.