George Henry, pioneering Indigenous broadcaster and ‘force of change,’ has died

Joanne Henry clearly remembers the first day CHON-FM hit the airwaves in Yukon in the mid-1980s.

Her brother George Henry, who died last week at 64, was the general manager and had been instrumental in getting the fledgling station off the ground. He gave a pep talk to his newly-trained broadcast staff that first day — Joanne among them —  and urged them to be “very respectful [on air], because the elders were listening.”

The staff took that message to heart, sort of, by choosing to sign on with Kris Kristofferson’s blunt-spoken homage to country music, If You Don’t Like Hank Williams.

It turned out to be a fitting intro for the upstart station — energetic, playful, and yet deadly serious in intent. An ode to trailblazers, and tradition.

George Henry himself was a trailblazer, and he honoured tradition — specifically, that of storytelling. He not only helped launch CHON-FM and Northern Native Broadcasting, but also Television Northern Canada, which later evolved into the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).  

“So many Indigenous producers and broadcasters would not be in this business without him … hundreds of people,” said Brenda Chambers, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation who worked with Henry for many years at Northern Native Broadcasting.

“You know, honestly, I guess he built the sandbox that we could all play in.”

Henry, a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, went the Lower Post Residential School in northern B.C., and later graduated from F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse. He went on to study broadcasting at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) and at Ryerson University in Toronto.

5:55Remembering George Henry

Yukon First Nations broadcast pioneer George Henry has died. Brenda Chambers, who worked with Henry in the early days of Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon, spoke with Elyn Jones about the impact he made. 5:55

His first job in broadcasting, according to his wife Jan Staples, was dubbing video tapes in the basement of Whitehorse Elementary School to be sent to rural communities, in the days before live TV in Yukon. He also took summer jobs at CBC while in university. 

Soon after Henry was laying the groundwork for what would become Northern Native Broadcasting and CHON-FM. The radio station’s licence was approved on June 18, 1984, and it then began broadcasting from the basement of the former Council of Yukon Indians building in Whitehorse.

“CHON-FM was built by dreamers,” Henry recalled, years later. “From humble beginnings in the basement of an Indian residential school to a modern vehicle for social change, CHON-FM is a unique aboriginal voice in the world.”

He would later go on to become the first Indigenous vice president of Yukon College. He also earned a law degree in Victoria and was called to the bar in B.C., where he lived in his later years.

‘He really did his homework’

Chambers describes Henry as “a force of change.”

She recalls how he would sometime argue before the the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) at licence hearings. 

“I think that was his real brilliant part, is that he really did his homework and knew what he wanted, what the goal was,” she said. 

“It was exciting to see someone that was so passionate about ensuring that our stories be told with conviction and as well as passion.” 

Chambers also offers a succinct summary of Henry’s legacy — he made many people proud to be Indigenous.

“We did something. We made forward moves all the time within the broadcasting industry,” she said.

Joanne Henry agrees — her brother was a “go-getter” and an inspiration. She credits him with convincing her to stay in school, years ago. And even when she went to work under him at CHON-FM, he cut her no slack — she had to study and work to develop her skills as much as anybody else.

She hadn’t seen George since before the pandemic, but talked to him a couple of weeks ago. The two were making plans for Joanne’s 60th birthday next month.

“We were going to have a glass of wine together,” she said.

A statement from George Henry’s family says a celebration of life will be held at a later date, “when we can all safely gather together.”