Growing up, all Frances Roesler’s children knew is their mother was always working at something. If it wasn’t chores around the house, it was the jobs she did to take care of her family, or her tireless volunteering: it was easy for the young kids to lose track of all the things their mom did.

Over the years, all of that work added up. And when Roesler died Oct. 1, 2019, at age 78, she left behind a quiet legacy of service that included daily efforts to support the people in her community, as well as being a driving force behind what became Winnipeg’s first residence for Indigenous seniors.

“She was a very hard worker,” says her eldest daughter, Sue Roesler. “She was a very humble woman, and she didn’t like a lot of fuss. She didn’t like the limelight. She was more of a grassroots kind of person, more behind the scenes, but a very hard worker.”

Roesler was raised in a family of four children, at what is now Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba’s Interlake region.

One story, passed down through the years, is her parents gave up their treaty rights in order to keep their children out of residential school. When Roesler was a teen, the family moved to Winnipeg, where she enrolled at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute.

By her early 20s, Roesler had married and settled down to raise a big family: four daughters and one son, all born two years apart. However, the marriage didn’t last, and by her early 30s, Roesler found herself raising her children mostly on her own, a daunting prospect for a young Indigenous woman in the 1970s.

Roesler was undaunted. She took pride in her independence, working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat; she refused social assistance. Still, there were many lean years. The children took little jobs to help out where they could, such as by delivering flyers, but there were still times they went without.

“For years, I could never, ever see her in anything new,” says daughter Cindy Howell. “It was always the kids got first, and if there was anything left, she would go to the used store.”

Somehow, she still found the time and energy to volunteer. A lifelong and avid churchgoer, Roesler took an active role at church, where she helped with Sunday school and women’s ministry. While money was tight and time even tighter, Roesler made sure to sew perfect church dresses for her daughters to look their best.

That work ethic made an impression on her children, many of whom followed in her footsteps in some way.

“We grew up well,” Cindy says. “We all work very hard. I followed the church path, did the same kinds of things she did in the church. Those kinds of things, (Roesler is) where I would have gotten that from, and from my grandma.”

Of all of Roesler’s ways of helping, few became more important to her than supporting Indigenous seniors.

In a way, that passion had been passed down through her own family. In 1959, her mother, Janet Cochrane, had helped launch the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre, which served as a key hub for Indigenous people moving to Winnipeg, especially as restrictions on movement out of First Nations were eased.

Soon, Roesler became a dedicated volunteer herself. She would serve 17 years as a board member at the centre, and felt driven to help folks get settled in the city. Today, Sue jokes she and some of her siblings were “raised as Friendship Centre kids,” so often did Roesler bring the family there.

In time, that work would inspire Roesler to take her own education further. In 1986, she obtained a bachelor of inner-city social work from the University of Manitoba; years later, professor emeritus Brad McKenzie wrote in praise of her “caring and respect for others in all that (she) did, and her quiet wisdom.”

She would parlay that degree into a respected social work career, including 23 years total at the Percy E. Moore Hospital in Hodgson. Through the course of her education, and work, she became committed to finding new ways to support seniors, especially from the Indigenous community.

“Older people, she just had a love for them, and I think that played a big part for her,” Cindy says. “She knew there was nothing out there for them. She went on a hunt to try and figure out what she could do.”

Soon, one idea in particular became a focus. At the time, there was no seniors residence in Winnipeg tailored for Indigenous elders. Roesler believed creating such a space, where elders could live together in a culturally appropriate environment, would be a key way to help improve lives.

Together with her mother, Roesler helped form an Indigenous seniors advisory group. She worked tirelessly to develop the plan for the centre, identifying the need in the community and securing funding. She spent long hours writing letters to government, even as she juggled work and other obligations.

Frances Roesler was a driving force behind the creation of the KeKiNan Centre, the city’s first residence for Indigenous seniors.

Eventually, the dream came to fruition.

In 1991, the KeKiNan Centre opened its doors on Robinson Avenue. Roesler remained active on its board until 2000. In a letter of recommendation for one award, then-premier Greg Selinger lauded her efforts to lead the centre’s development.

“She has always been a person who in the face of life’s challenges remains calm, caring and a source of comfort and compassion to those around her,” wrote Selinger, who had also taught Roesler when she was a U of M student.

After a lifetime of community work, Roesler did at last get some time to enjoy herself. She retired in 2010, and took time to follow a passion for travel. Sometimes, she would take some of the seniors she’d met through the KeKiNan Centre or other volunteer efforts on vacations with her.

Three years ago, Roesler suffered a heart attack, from which her health never truly recovered.

When her children think of her, they still picture her the way she spent most of her life: a tireless champion for others, always on some mission to make the community around her a little bit better.

“She was always on the go,” Cindy says. “She was always going somewhere, always doing something for somebody. She was always doing what she could.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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