Aurel Robert Dupuis was born on Sept. 24, 1943, in Timmins, Ont. His father, Jean-Alfred, was a Franco-Ontarian bush contractor who hired workers to haul pulp wood to local paper mills. His mother, Renade, ran their large household. Aurel was one of seven children.
Aurel grew up near Barber’s Bay, in northeastern Ontario, surrounded by green woods and frozen lakes. His childhood was marked by hard work. When Aurel wasn’t at school, he was loading pulp trucks with his dad. As the oldest boy, Aurel felt he had to work hardest, to set an example. He took his role seriously and after Grade 7, announced he preferred the bush life to the classroom and quit school.
So began Aurel’s working life, a boy among gruff, older men. Though he was a shy teenager, he came to love singing les chansons à répondre (French folk songs) and played the accordion and the spoons. He loved the woods, but at 17, he and his brother Guy, who was one year younger, decided to see the world beyond Barber’s Bay, and travelled 700 km south to Toronto, their first visit to a big city. Together, they found work at Bathurst Containers, a packing company, but Guy liked the city a lot more than his big brother. Barely a year later, Aurel bought a truck and drove right back to Barber’s Bay.
While working odd jobs, Aurel, then 20, met a francophone girl from neighbouring Hoyle on a blind date. He was smitten. On Dec. 9, 1967, Huguette, four years his junior, became his wife. It was -50° C outside as they exchanged vows at St. Jude’s Church in Porcupine, east of Timmins.
The couple settled in Hoyle. Aurel found work at Texas Gulf, a mining company, and Huguette gave birth to their only child, a girl they named Aurelda, for her dad. In the early 1970s, when she was still a toddler, the family embarked on a major adventure, moving to Guinea, in West Africa, where Aurel worked as a foreman at a Texas Gulf aluminum mine. “It was a very proud moment,” says Aurelda, “and also a very challenging time.” Aurel helped train the local workers, with whom he shared the French language. It troubled him to see them barefoot, working in obviously unsafe conditions. “He liked his job but got very homesick,” says his brother Guy. The family came back to Canada after a year. “It was just so different there.”
In 1976, the family settled in Connaught, Ont., and bought a gas and service station. It was grinding work. The station was open seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to midnight. Huguette and Aurelda ran the shop, while Aurel, a self-taught mechanic, fixed cars. Aurel’s tough exterior hid a loving, selfless heart. When he could, Aurel gave away gas to single mothers and others who were struggling, or waved off payment for the occasional repair job. Still, the business flourished and the family soon bought more stations, becoming the region’s sole gas providers.
By 1985, they decided it was time for a break. Aurel and his wife took a year off, spending much of it boating across the many lakes surrounding Timmins, bringing friends and family with them. They went on to buy the Connaught Tavern and Inn on Frederick House Lake—known locally as “the Tiltin’ Hilton” for its sideways lean. Those years brought out Aurel’s more social side. He would entertain guests with his songs and 100-year-old accordion, enjoying a beer or two. All that came to an abrupt end in 1997, however, when Huguette died suddenly from an aneurysm. “She was the glue of the family,” says Aurelda. “It took my dad some time to get back together.”
After losing Huguette, Aurel, then retired, focused on building a home for himself with a large garage for his woodworking and welding tools. “He was going to build a steel swing set for my kids,” Aurelda says, “just like the one he once built for me.”
On April 3, Réal and Lise Bélanger, neighbours from a few doors down, rushed in, asking for help. Their dog had fallen through the ice. Aurel, known for his big heart, didn’t hesitate, jumping into his boat, zipping over to help. Both Réal and Lise fell through the ice, one after the other. Aurel jumped into the freezing water to help, but only the Bélangers made it out of Frederick House Lake. “What he did was truly selfless,” says Réal. Aurel was 68.