Les Rocher, a Yellowknife icon and long-time property developer who helped shape the face of the capital, has died April 23 after a seven-month battle with liver cancer. He was 63.
Rocher, a landowner with deep roots in the community, was behind a long line of cornerstone real estate and residential developments in the city dating back decades.
Known for his straight-talk, keen business sense and community-driven vision, Rocher made his mark with dozens of key property projects, from land developments in Old Town — where he grew up — to Niven Lake, Kam Lake and many more.
Rocher’s parents, Johnny and Mary, came to Yellowknife in the late 1950s. They settled in Old Town, then a hotbed for budding business people and newcomers to the North looking for fresh opportunities amid the gold mining boom.
The family soon opened a secondhand store in the neighbourhood. Les’ Swap Shop took shape in the years to come, and, in the 1980s, Rocher helped expand the family business — now the long-running Quality Furniture store — to include the sale of retail furniture.
Les’ sister, Jeannie, continues to run the longstanding shop today.
“He put up hundreds of homes (in Yellowknife) but it’s probably very near 1,000 now,” said his oldest daughter Jacqueline Khavandi, who followed her father’s footsteps into the real estate business and remains an active part of the family-run company, Homes North.
Her father had vision for the unrealized, she said. Before Niven Lake was developed people would’ve seen clumps of trees and some swamp surrounded by rock. Rocher saw an inviting neighbourhood dotted with modular homes. Same with Lakeshore Developments at Kam Lake, one of his last and most ambitions projects.
“I never will forget when he took me with two engineers and we were literally pulled over the side of the road next to Kam Lake and he was pushing, pushing past the willows. When we climbed up into this rock area and the foundation was great. It was all bedrock, a huge pile of bedrock. And it wasn’t easy to envision the layout of of the neighbourhood among the rock And he just said, ‘you know we’re gonna put the park here and we’ll put this here,’ telling us where everything was going to go and I couldn’t see what he was talking about. Of course, I know it now but he had a vision for it before it was all finished.”
Rocher bought many of his properties but he had an appetite for straight-up trades, including one that involved the old city firehouse in Trail’s End, now home to the Bailey House transitional home for men, and a city-owned piece of land now slated as the future home of Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken. He had a cabinet-file deep knowledge of all land inventory in the city, much of it gathered during long, slow drives through town in his pick-up truck with his dog Shadow at his side.
If he saw something he thought would work or would be of interest to someone he knew, he would take a mental note and devise a plan.
“You could just see him light up when he talked about it because it was really fun for him to plan this out and strategize. He really enjoyed it,” said Khavandi.
“He had an advantage because he, he worked seven days a week on the evenings and weekends.”
‘He was fearless’
Rod Stirling, of Coldwell Banker, called Rocher a friend for more than 40 years. Being in the real estate business, Stirling worked closely with Rocher over the course of hundreds of land purchases and development projects dating back to the mid-1980s.
“He was fearless in business,” said Stirling. “He wasn’t afraid to roll the dice.”
While other property developers dawdled, Rocher never hesitated: he was quick to buy up — and later develop — land while competitors mulled their choices, said Stirling.
When the two initially crossed paths, Rocher was undertaking some of his first real estate projects in Yellowknife: he was helming mobile home expansions on Borden Drive, Herriman Road, Wilkinson Crescent, Laroque Crescent, Bourque Drive, Demelt Crescent and Range Lake Road.
“(Rocher) will be remembered fondly,” said former mayor Gordon Van Tighem.
“I had great respect for him and his efforts.”
Van Tighem served as mayor from 2000 to 2012, a period that saw Rocher complete a number of residential developments in town.
The former mayor knew Rocher for more than 30 years.
“He went against the grain and he got things accomplished,” said Van Tighem.
Aside from being a “force” in the city as a developer, Rocher and his family made significant contributions to the community in countless other ways, said Van Tighem.
“They were also extremely influential in dealing with people who were homeless or home-challenged; the family provided a lot of support in that area,” he said.
That commitment to community-oriented causes translated to support for social clubs, historical groups and cultural events, he added.
Major Al Hoeft, who served as executive director and corps officer at the Yellowknife Salvation Army’s for 15 years until 2005, remembers Rocher as a sharp businessman who genuinely cared for the community he long called home.
“Les was certainly one of those individuals who was an entrepreneur but he had a big heart,” said Hoeft.
“We worked together to make solutions happen — together.”
With Yellowknife facing a dire need to find housing solutions for men struggling with homelessness and addictions issues, Hoeft said Rocher approached him and the Salvation Army in the early 2000s — he wanted to know if the now-old fire hall site, which he owned, could be made use of.
Those concerted efforts would later see Rocher swap the land with the city. The fire hall was demolished, making way for the Salvation Army-run Bailey House — a 32-bed transitional housing centre that’s seen more than 400 men pass through its doors since opening in 2009.
“Les was a big part of that — trying to make sure that we’d have adequate solutions to work on some of the homeless challenges we had at the time in Yellowknife,” said Hoeft.
‘He was a visionary’
Stantec’s Kevin Hodgins, a civil engineer who is now the senior principal at the consulting firm, worked with Rocher on hundreds of developments dating back to the late 1980s.
“He was a visionary,” said Hodgins.
“He was homegrown — a dealmaker.”
With an unmatched eye for opportunity and an unrivaled entrepreneurial spirit, Rocher was in a league of his own, said Hodgins.
He recalled Rocher’s countless hours driving around town, from one job site to another; meeting with partners and checking up on developments.
Rocher was more generous and trustworthy than most people Hodgins has ever met, both profressionally and personally. Rocher’s wife Sandra played an integral role in Homes North, he added.
“Les was the person people saw; the dealmaker. Sandra was behind the scenes, doing paperwork and formalizing deals, said Hodgins.
‘He lived a full life’
Longtime resident Alex Debogorski knew Rocher for decades. The two first became acquainted with one another during a near-brawl at the Explorer Hotel in the late 1970s — a couple years after Debogorski, then a bouncer, had arrived in town. But the pair quickly became friends after a rocky start.
They both had a penchant for collecting items others perceived as junk; and they both had big families — Rocher raised his children in the Willow Flats area by the Woodyard — and the two used to meet regularly. Both households raised chickens and a host of other animals.
The two used to compete for the same lots sold for cheap in the late 1970s, but their friendship endured.
“He’ll always bring a smile to my face,” Debogorski told NNSL Media.
If he was out on the yard at his Kam Lake residence and Rocher happened to pass by, Debogorski would wait on Rocher to pull up. He’d tell him to get in his truck and the two would drive around town, reminiscing while visiting Rocher’s many project sites.
Debogorski himself has dealt with health issues in recent years. He said Rocher visited him in the hospital not long ago.
“Hopefully we’ll all get together again. God bless the Rocher family and my heart is with them all,” said Debogorski.
“He lived a full life.”
Rocher is survived by his spouse of 35 years, Sandra McDaniel and their six children: Gabriel McDaniel, Jacqueline Khavandhi, Lindsey Rocher, Bonnie Rocher, Lorna Rocher and Leslie Rocher; his mother Mary Rocher; sister Jeannie; and three grandchildren with another one on the way.
The family is hold a private service for the time being due to Covid-19 concerns but hopes to host a celebration of life in August, said Khavandi.
-with files from Mike W. Bryant