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First Nations man tracks down person he believes killed his mother

Gary Wassaykeesic was 11 years old when his mother died. The coroner ruled it accidental, but Wassaykeesic has never believed that. For 39-years he's been on the trail of a man he believed killed her. Wassaykeesic believes he found him, last week, in hospital in Sioux Lookout, Ont.

'I've dreamed of confronting this guy,' Gary Wassaykeesic says of his 39-year quest

'I had built up all this energy for this one moment and it went quiet. Inside I could just feel quiet,' Gary Wassaykeesic says of the moment he confronted the man he believes killed his mother.

Gary Wassaykeesic's 39-year quest to find the man he believes killed his mother came to a surprising end in a hospital room last week in Sioux Lookout, Ont.

Sophie Wassaykeesic died in the small northern Ontario mining town of Central Patricia, now part of Pickle Lake, Ont., in 1976. The coroner determined her death was a "self-administered alcohol overdose." But her son has never believed that.

Back then, as a grieving 11-year-old, Wassaykeesic said he confronted the man everyone in town said killed Sophie. 

"I remember going up to him, pointing a finger at him and saying, 'I'm going to come get you, I'm going to look for you,'" Wassaykeesic said. "I've always held to that promise."

Time spent in residential school, foster homes and reform schools meant Wassaykeesic lost track of the man, but he was never far from his mind.

Gary Wassaykeesic, seen here at a 2013 Idle No More blockade in Caledonia, Ont., says his activism was always fuelled by his sense of injustice over his mother's death. (Adam Carter/CBC)
Wassaykeesic became an activist, living in Toronto, often speaking out on missing and murdered indigenous women. But, life wasn't easy.

"This has led me to a whole lot of situations and places that I never wanted to be, the alcoholism, the drug addiction," Wassaykeesic said. "I still had all the anger, all the rage, relationships falling apart, can't hold a job, always thinking about this guy."

'I have the power now'

A few weeks ago, Wassaykeesic got word that the man he was looking for was in hospital in Sioux Lookout. Wassaykeesic began hitchhiking north, with vengeance on his mind.

"I've built up scenarios, I've fantasied, I've dreamed of confronting this guy," he said. "I was a kid when it happened, now he's the kid, lying in a hospital bed. I have the power now."

Wassaykeesic said he wasn't sure, until he went into the man's hospital room, how he'd use that power. Elders had warned him against violence.

"I looked at [the man] and it seemed like the bottom dropped out, the rage, the anger. Everything went quiet," Wassaykeesic said. "I had built up all this energy for this one moment and it went quiet. Inside I could just feel quiet."

Wassaykeesic said he spoke to the man in Ojibway, asking if he remembered him and then began listing off his brothers, talking about the impact their mother's death had on their lives.

'It's over, it's done.'

He said he thought he saw recognition and fear in the man's eyes, but there was no confession.

"I said, 'I was a kid, I told you I was going to come get you'," Wassaykeesic said. "I said, 'this is it, it's over, it's done.'"

He said he touched the man then and said "I could have had you". Then, Wassaykeesic sat with the man a while longer and finally left.

The meeting had a powerful effect on Wassaykeesic.

"The rush when I walked out, the high, nothing compares to what I was feeling when I came walking out," he said with a laugh. "I wanted to tell taxi drivers, I wanted to tell people walking by, that I walked out of that room. I could have had him, but I walked out."

Wassaykeesic said he still wants to see a new investigation into his mother's death. He hopes there will be a hearing, or a chance for him and his brothers to give victim impact statements in court. But the desire for justice is no longer overwhelming.

"I don't have to do this any more, I don't have to concentrate on this any more," Wassaykeesic said. "The closure that I've been looking for, I got that. I'm free to do what I want now."

"Even as I was walking out that door, I was thinking, 'now I can go on with my life,' he said.