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Broadcaster, hunter and pioneer
The CBC's Jonah Kelly dies at 65

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, June 2, 2012

Like many Northerners, William Tagoona knew Jonah Kelly long before he ever met him.

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Longtime broadcaster Jonah Kelly died on May 26 at 65 years old. - NNSL file photo

"I knew of him on the radio. I guess just about everybody did," Tagoona said. "We all very much admired him without even knowing him then."

Kelly, a longtime broadcaster for CBC, died on May 26 at 65 years old. He started at CBC in 1965.

As a musician, Kelly interviewed Tagoona many times before Tagoona became a CBC broadcaster himself. He said Kelly was vital to changing the language of radio in the North.

"Jonah changed the newsroom from that time until now, where Inuktitut news is not just a shadow of English news anymore," Tagoona said. "He was that type of a person, that he could make change and he has at the CBC."

Tagoona has many memories of Kelly, spanning more than 30 years of friendship. He remembers one summer when a southern manager arrived to cover another employee's holidays at the CBC office in Iqaluit. Kelly refused to read one of the stories he was assigned and told the manager it had no place at the beginning of the news lineup because it had no relevance to Inuit.

"Ten minutes before airtime Jonah threw it right on the table and said 'I'm not reading that for a story'," said Tagoona. "He could be very, very stern, too. That was the only time I've ever seen him really angry."

Kelly's refusal highlighted the importance of providing news befitting an Inuit audience not just translating English stories into Inuktitut.

"This is 27 to 28 years ago when he made that stand in front of all of us rookie reporters," said Tagoona. "He was showing us we need to make it relevant to Inuit and not just a carbon copy of what English does."

Kelly was the first Inuk native-language announcer hired on a permanent basis at the CBC, according to Library and Archives Canada. In 1974, he became the corporation's Senior Eskimo Language Programmer and created "Tausunni," now known as "CBC North's flagship Inuktitut program."

He was the first to cover the Northwest Territories legislative assembly entirely in Inuktitut.

Kelly was also a funny man who loved practical jokes. Tagoona said a radio announcer once asked Kelly to watch the control booth for him while he quickly went to the bathroom. Kelly agreed, but while he was watching, the record being played on air started to skip. Kelly didn't move a muscle.

Tagoona said Kelly simply sat and let the record skip, a sound that was being broadcast to every room in the station including the bathroom.

"There were speakers in every room so the guy could hear the record skipping in the bathroom. You should have seen him run," said Tagoona, laughing.

Tagoona said the joke was Kelly's way of demonstrating the lighter side of a newsroom.

"He was just showing him there's fun in this business, too," he said.

He also loved being out on the land and Tagoona went on many hunting trips with Kelly outside Iqaluit.

"He was a man that just loves the outdoors, he loved hunting whether it was in the summertime or in the winter," Tagoona said. "He was just an all-around fun person to be around."

Kelly's work reflected the love of his culture, Tagoona also said.

"His thing was always Inuit culture; that was always the underlying theme for everything he did on radio," he said.

Kelly was also known for the music he played on air. He usually combined a mixture of English favourites, such as Elvis Presley, with Inuktitut musicians.

"He took great care in the kind of songs he put on air," Tagoona said.

Southern exposure

As a broadcaster, Kelly was never intimidated. Tagoona remembers covering a First Ministers' Conference in Ottawa with Kelly, which was broadcast live throughout the North.

"He was as at home in Ottawa as he was in Iqaluit," Tagoona said. "People knew this guy."

He said having an Inuk role model was important in developing his own broadcasting skills.

"It was really nice to be around him when you're trying to weave your way through the southern media," he said. "It was nice to have an Inuk veteran. "

Tagoona said Kelly's confidence wasn't limited to trips south.

"He was a big man, physically," he said. "When he walked into the office, it was like he owned the building."

Kelly retired from the CBC in 1997, but was still an active member of the Northern community.

"He didn't just vanish. He stayed visible," Tagoona said.

Tagoona also said Kelly's CBC career didn't end with him both his son and a sister work for the corporation.

"He does have a legacy," he said.

Kelly received recognition throughout his career, including an honorary journalism degree from Nunavut Arctic College, Baffin Region Chamber of Commerce's lifetime achievement award and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award.

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