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Eddy Robinson wants to reframe Aboriginal culture in Toronto

You'd expect someone more harried. There's his very pregnant wife and the condo they're listing, not to mention the teenage daughter. There's his work as a policy analyst. There's a bit of long-distance politics. There's his art. And then there's this business he's trying to grow.

But if things are tense, Eddy Robinson does not betray so much as a twitch. He just crosses his tattooed arms and spreads an almost placid smile.

"You should see me when I'm driving," he chuckles.

MorningStar River is the name of that business. Think of it almost like a talent agency for Aboriginal song and dance, an operation born from the drum group Robinson established in 1998. These days, he connects about 20 local Aboriginal artists with performance opportunities of all shapes and sizes, from the Royal Ontario Museum to keynote addresses, from dance festivals to the forthcoming Pan-American Games. There's also a cultural consulting aspect of the business, whether personal or educational.

At the moment, Robinson is revamping his business plan. He's participating in a mentorship program run by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and the program has lent him the discerning eyes of people like Domenic Natale, VP of TD Aboriginal Trust Services and Jennifer Cowling, a TD Bank Senior Manager. Robinson will refocus his business goals, ramp up some of the educational objectives, and redesign his brochures accordingly. The aim is partly to saw through a forest of red tape with a more streamlined strategy.

"I'm more closer to the artist community than I am to the business community, but I'm trying to step into that side," he says. "I want to use my business as a vehicle to create social change and to develop better relationships, because I know it's necessary for a community to build a strong economic foundation. And if I'm doing education and showing culture, and educating people as I go from performance to performance, then that's building that capacity and that awareness."

Robinson's own awareness was chiselled and forged from a traumatic childhood and subsequent awakening. His dad left when he was three, and his mother was too unstable to take care of him. He lived in Toronto with his grandparents -- who had 11 kids -- and an uncle.

"I was exposed to a lot of violence when I was younger," he says, noting simply that he brawled with his uncles when he was 12.

When he was 10, he wound up moving into a housing project with his mom, who used him as a chess piece to manipulate social services. The following year, he was kicked out. He wandered to Sault St. Marie, where he lived with his father for a while in a small kitchenette. But that didn't last. He wound up on the streets, struggling with addictions and drawing a lot of police attention.

By the time he was 14, he had racked up a raft of charges and was sentenced to a few months in juvie, a year of probation, and 55 hours of community service. He was remanded to his mother and he served his hours at Council Fire Native Cultural Centre in east Toronto.

"I learned how to sing when I was doing community hours," he says.

It wasn't his first encounter with traditional singing. Growing up with his grandparents, when he was riveted by hip-hop icons like Run DMC, Robinson was exposed to the Catholic Native People's Parish. He was exposed to singing then, but wasn't ready for it.

"It was overwhelming, and I laughed at it and I made fun of it," he says. "I didn't get it."

But he was increasingly open as his teen years carried on. A parish priest taught him about spiritual herbs like sage and sweetgrass. He learned about fasting and vision quests, and also native leaders like Crazy Horse. Eventually, Robinson amicably left the church, shaking off the Catholic overtones and driving deeper into his native heritage.

"There was only one drum group in Toronto at the time, and they were called Eagle Heart," he says. "So I started hanging around with those guys. They were all older guys, had been around, were activists in the American Indian movement.

"Next thing you know, I was really hardcore."

Then he met late spiritual advisor Adam Lussier. Robinson laughs about the memory. He was expecting to meet a cliche from the Lakota cough drop commercials -- "speaking in a lower octave romantically about our ways" -- but instead Lussier was this quasi-urbane business casualist with a pocket protector. He sent Robinson on a long journey of discovery, learning about his clan, spirit colours, and native name.

"It opened the doors to spirituality: fasting ceremonies, interpreting messages from spirits, our ways and our customs and our stories, learning about our traditional ways and what our purposes are as Anishnaabe people."

Robinson was 19. Now, he's 37. In the intervening years, he melded the work ethic he learned from his grandfather with the spirituality lessons garnered elsewhere. He started MorningStar River, became the lead singer in a band, and enjoyed Aboriginal Music Award nominations. He took a position as education policy analyst with The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres. He became a band councillor with the Missinaibi Cree First Nation. He became a father. He fell in love and got married. And, of course, he's been working diligently on his business.

"I want to present the best possible image of our people, the most correct image," he says.

Paul Carlucci is a GTA-based writer.

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