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Farewell to a gentle soul

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 02/05) - Leon Sassie, who played an integral role in Fort Simpson's justice committee since its inception in 1995, passed away on Nov. 15

NNSL Photo/graphic

Leon Sassie, a respected Fort Simpson elder, died on Nov. 15. He is seen here applying insulating mud to the outside of McPherson House with student Shelly Hardisty in 2001. - NNSL file photo

Pat Waugh, who helped form the justice circle, said Sassie had a disarming smile and always maintained a sense of humour. He was supportive rather than judgmental, and he was able to effectively communicate his message in few words, she said.

Sharon Allen, a member of the justice committee, said Sassie would unfailingly provide troubled youth with better choices and alternatives.

Commonly known by the nickname K'Otsi, which means "red willow" in South Slavey, Sassie moved to Fort Liard as a young boy with his mom after his father died. He spent years trapping with Alfred Thomas and Jimmy Isaiah, according to eulogist Bob Norwegian, whose father Roderick was also a close friend of Sassie's.

"He was a very kind man," said Norwegian, who also described him as a philosopher and family man.

He recalled how K'Otsi once told him about almost losing his life while out trapping on a -38C day. Sassie fell through some ice, and while holding himself up with his upper body, the strong current below pulled at his snowshoes. His body quickly grew numb but he managed to reach for his pocket knife and cut away the bindings of the snowshoes, Norwegian said. Then he was able to roll onto the ice and walked to a nearby cabin, saving himself from hypothermia and certain death.

Decades later Sassie continued to carry a pocketknife, saying "you never know when you're going to need it," said Norwegian.

Fred Antoine, another friend of K'Otsi's, told Norwegian that he remembered Sassie being among the first to have outboard motors on his scow in the early 1940s. In those days almost everyone paddled on the river. Antoine accepted a ride across the Mackenzie with Sassie and, propelled by the eight- and nine-horsepower kickers, he said it felt like the they were going 100 miles an hour.

Sassie told him that motors were the way of the future, according to Norwegian.

Keyna Norwegian, chief of the Liidlii Kue First Nation, lived down the street from Sassie as a little girl. She said K'Otsi gave her a rock shaped like his hand when she was driving a cab several years ago. It was a simple but powerful gesture.

"When he handed me the rock it was just this tingly feeling all over. I was so touched by it," she said. "I carry this rock and whenever I'm having trouble or problems I take the rock and I hold it."

She said she always felt at ease in his presence.

"He just had that aura of a peaceful, gentle, honest person," she said. "He's the kind of guy that's going to be deeply missed."