When the life of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone was cut short by a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002, many people across the state, as well as the U.S. and Canada, mourned the loss of a great man and social activist.
One of the many who personally felt that loss was Robert Animikii Horton (Bebaamweyaazh), a 26-year-old sociology Masters student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and a band member from the community of Manitou Rapids (Rainy River First Nations).
At an early age, Horton left Rainy River District and moved to the Twin Cities region. Wellstone was very active, socially and politically, around the state at the time Horton’s family worked in indigenous politics and education.
Horton remembers watching Wellstone’s campaigns as a child and hearing him speak years later.
“I grew up acknowledging what he stood for in terms of politics, social justice, education, and standing for what one, in their heart and soul, believes in,” Horton explained.
Horton said he learned how crucial social and political advocacy, activism, grassroots organizing, and social justice are in our communities and society. And like Wellstone, he believes we must hold our leaders accountable and responsible for our youth, our communities, and those who count on us to be the voice of the voiceless.
Wellstone’s commitment, vision, advocacy, and dedication gave Horton’s life a purpose and a direction he continues to follow today.
“I wanted to bring Paul’s example back to our First Nation communities,” he enthused.
“They are footsteps that I have committed myself to in terms of uncompromised integrity, focus, advocacy, and truth,” he stressed. “They are footsteps I intend to follow until I’m old and grey, and a legacy and vision I wish to follow and to continue to build on for our people.
“As Paul would say, we must never separate the lives we live from the words we speak or from our politics.”
This year, Horton was one of 12 individuals from across Canada who received the 2008 National Aboriginal Health Organization’s National Aboriginal Role Model Award.
On Oct. 8, Horton spoke in Montreal, Que. at the fourth-annual National Youth Panel, which is held in conjunction with the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers’ annual national conference and annual general meeting.
His speech, entitled “Winds of Change Are in the Hands of the Young,” spoke to the youth as well as the older generation, and it spoke to the families as well as the leaders who are entrusted with the future of the people.
With the global economy in turmoil and changes happening in Canada and elsewhere around the world, Horton offers First Nation communities across Canada the challenge of creating a better future for their youth.
“We are living in times of great, of incredible and profound change. In these times that we now stand before, we face a great responsibility,” he insisted.
Horton urges those in positions of leadership to empower the young people, to provide progressive and effective leadership, to create strength and solidarity within and between their communities, and to honour their languages, their teachings, and their collective identity as a people.
The power of Wellstone’s and Horton’s vision and advocacy for social justice is a universal message that speaks to the youth of all societies. It is a message everyone in Canada who has ever believed in a “just society” should take to heart.
Horton definitely has accepted the challenge and responsibility of living out the message of Paul Wellstone. In his speaking across the country, people are beginning to listen.
Kirsten Mikkelsen, a faculty member of the Justice Institute of British Columbia and a former UVIC faculty member, recently referred to Horton as the “Anishinaabe Paul Wellstone.”
As Wellstone did, Horton challenges the First Nation youth to believe in themselves, to believe in their dreams and their collective vision, and urges them to work together to bring about positive change.
“The future will not belong to the cynics—those who sit by the sidelines . . . the future will belong to those who choose to work hard for what they believe in . . . the future will belong to those that choose to believe in the beauty of their dreams.” (Paul Wellstone tribute).
Horton’s journey to follow in the footsteps of Wellstone has just begun. He has accomplished so much in the past few years, and has become an inspirational and outspoken leader.
As long as Horton lives and follows in the footsteps of Wellstone, then his dream and vision for social justice will never die, but live on in Horton and in the people he touches and in the youth that he inspires.
Wellstone’s death will not be in vain. His vision of a better future will live on.
April, a young woman from Six Nations who heard Horton speak in Montreal said, “It’s an exciting year. The States has just brought a strong leader into their ranks last week and I believe we have our own leader emerging among our people here.”
Graham Hunter from Manitou Rapids put it this way: “The more Rob puts these messages across the easier it will be for us to accept the fact we need to make some major changes in our communities. Rob is a great leader who I look up to very much. I feel I am not the only one who knows he is making, and will continue to make, positive change in the minds of our youth and leaders.”
As the Cooper Brothers from Ottawa wrote in their song of the early ’80s “The dream never dies, just the dreamer, the dream never dies if it’s strong. The song never dies, just the singer, so come on everybody sing along.”