Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A mom beaten, a son changed

Trauma still vivid in Robinson's mind

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As a 10-year-old boy, Eric Robinson looked on in horror as his mother was badly beaten, a transformative event that would influence his future political career.

"Her non-aboriginal boyfriend was beating the hell out of her, hitting her like a man would hit another man in a boxing match," Robinson recalls.

"I tried to defend her and I was knocked against the wall" and lost consciousness.

The young Robinson, by then a survivor of three horrific years in a northern residential school, remembers coming to the next morning in his mother's arms.

"Here she was cuddling me, trying to be a mother, and yet when I woke up to see what this guy did to her, it was simply appalling," he recalled in an interview Wednesday.

His mother, an orphan who spent virtually all her childhood in a residential school, would not play a significant role in his upbringing. "She (later) died a miserable street death," Robinson said.

Fast-forward half a century and Robinson, now a 20-year MLA and a longtime cabinet minister who has championed the cause of learning the truth about hundreds of murdered and missing Canadian aboriginal women, is on the political hot seat.

A Winnipeg women's shelter, at odds with the province over funding and other issues, has obtained an internal government email in which Robinson referred to backers of a fundraiser as "do-good white people." His critics have labelled the comment racist and demanded his removal from cabinet.

It's why, in telling the story about his mother, he refers to her "non-aboriginal boyfriend." "I can't say 'white' anymore," he deadpanned Wednesday, revealing an ever-present sense of humour.

Speaking in 2008 about his residential-school experience, Robinson said he could "still taste the lye soap placed in my mouth for speaking my language, Cree."

In an address in the Manitoba legislature, he said being molested at a young age by a priest brought him "a lifetime of pain and anguish. Being told it was my fault and later learning to blame everyone around me has taken a toll on my personal relationships."

Later on, alcohol and drugs were a temporary relief but only accelerated his feelings of despair, he said.

But in 1976, through a combination of conventional treatment and traditional teachings, he "sobered up." After receiving a certificate in drug and alcohol counselling, he worked for a time with the down and out in northern B.C.

For a good part of the 1970s and early 1980s, he held a series of broadcasting jobs, winding up with the CBC in Thompson.

From there, he worked as an activist with a number of aboriginal organizations and landed a job in the late 1980s doing research and conducting prison-inmate interviews for the landmark Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

As a cabinet minister in the Doer government, beginning in 1999, he would be instrumental in implementing many of the report's recommendations, including placing control of First Nations child welfare in aboriginal hands.

Robinson was a driving force behind the formation of the Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation, named after the aboriginal high school student who was abducted and murdered near The Pas in 1971.

The foundation will this year surpass the $1-million mark in bursaries that enable aboriginal students to attend post-secondary school.

In the legislature this week, Premier Greg Selinger, in defending his embattled minister, noted Robinson was one of the first to meet with Osborne's family to acknowledge their suffering. Asked Wednesday in what capacity he made the visit to a family he knew of but not well, Robinson replied: "as a fellow human being."

Meanwhile, Robinson said witnessing his mother's brutal beating as a boy has helped direct his actions ever since.

"I think that's what ignited a bit of the fire in my stomach to this day to do what I can for marginalized people, particularly women," he said.

"I haven't been an angel all my life either, but at the very least I've done my best to be a protector of the life-givers of our people."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2013 A4

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