by Keith Norbury, Insurancewest magazine

After being seriously injured in a car crash in 2010, Ryan Ginnish could no longer play hockey, a game he’d loved since the age of 6. But he could still coach and pass along his affection for the game to young players in his hometown of Membertou, a Mi’kmaw community on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. “I was going crazy because I didn’t know what to do in my spare time,” Ginnish says.

The coaching soon evolved into something much bigger. He has become a role model for his young players, and who wears business attire to the rink. “The kids ask me why I dress up for games. I tell them I dress that way every day. “ He recently coached five teams, from novice to midget, at the 40th annual Wally Bernard Native Youth Hockey Tournament in Sydney, with three of his teams winning trophies. Making the experience even more grueling was the 400-km drive each way from his office in Halifax.

When the tournament was over he barely had time to recharge his batteries. But as the majority partner of Thunderbird Commercial Insurance, a member of provincial brokers’ association, he had some work to catch up on. April is when most of his clients – First Nations communities and commercial enterprises – renew.

Ginnish, 31, is determined to shatter stereotypes about First Nations people. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mi’kmaw studies from the University of Cape Breton and studied business administration at Nova Scotia Community College. He also took courses in insurance at the college and was working on a class project when he met Malcolm Smith, who was then running Membertou Insurance Brokers on behalf of the Membertou First Nation.

“He’d been searching for someone like myself who he could mentor for the purpose of capacity building,” Ginnish recalled. “When I first met him, he said, ‘Why haven’t I heard about you?” In February 2012 Smith parted ways with the brokerage and he and Ginnish started Thunderbird, with Ginnish owning 51 percent.

“Ryan is a poster child for what a role model for First Nations can be,” Smith says. “He’s gone through so much adversity and come through on the other side. It’s simply amazing.”

As a teen Ginnish admits to having often fought that adversity, which included racial taunts, with his fists. Sometimes that led to scrapes with the law. In 2004 his cousin, Michelle Ginnish, who he considered a sister, was murdered at a house party. She’d been raised with Ryan and his brothers by his mother Debra.

He even credits Michelle’s spirit with looking out for him and encouraging his recovery from the 2010 car crash. It had been raining heavily; he was a passenger. The car flipped several times. The seatbelt saved his life. His injuries included two bilateral skull fractures that took 60 staples to close, a broken nose, sternum and T2 vertebra, bruised lungs and soft tissue damage to his back. “The only way I’m able to function everyday is with pain medication and a positive mindset.”

Ginnish has three children with wife Jacquie – Mia, 7; Jax, 3; and stepson Kenzie, 13. “I use it as a motivator, because nobody is going to pay for my kids’ school, my kids’ daycare or my kids’ house.” He credits Jacquie, a registered nurse, with his recovery. He says she stood by his side through the ups and downs without wavering.

“Without her I’m not sure where I’d be today,” says Ginnish, who is fond of the quotation, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”

He credits his mother for his positive attitude. Despite having three children before the age of 22 and raising them and other relatives as a single parent, Debra Ginnish also earned a university degree and pursued a career. She’s been working with the Mi’kmaq Association of Cultural Studies since 1986. For the past five years she’s been its executive director.

“My mom never gave up on me,” says Ryan, the youngest of her three sons. “She always believed in me and knew I was smart enough and capable enough to graduate from whatever I wanted to do.”
Because of a lack of work in Cape Breton in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his parents moved to Boston, where Ryan and his brothers – Darryl and Sean – were born. After his parents split up, Debra Ginnish returned to Membertou and began her education while raising her family.

As a young adult, Ryan also followed his mother’s example and returned to school. He, too, was raising a young family. “He realized education was a big part of his life and that if he wanted to make something of his life, then it was something he needed to do,” says Debra.

She admits, though, that she was a bit surprised by her son’s career choice, given the number of First Nations people in the insurance business. “But I’ve always maintained that you can dream big and accomplish anything you set your mind to.”

Before insurance, to support his family Ryan fished for snow crab and lobster during the summer and helped an uncle build houses in the winter. But the same injuries that cut short his hockey-playing days also restricted his ability to do demanding physical work.

“I had to find a new career.”

It was that determination that convinced Malcolm Smith that Ginnish would make the perfect business partner. Originally from Halifax, Smith had spent 30 years in B.C., including several years as aboriginal business coordinator in the province for Aon Reed Stenhouse. He returned to the Maritimes in 2009 with the idea of opening an aboriginal brokerage. He sold that concept to Jardine Lloyd Thompson, which resulted in the establishment of Membertou Insurance Brokers. And when that relationship ended, smith and his protégé decided to strike out on their own.

“As soon as I met him, I knew I could trust him,” Smith says.

Having Ginnish as the majority shareholder enables the company to be registered on the Membertou reserve. This provides the firm with a strong presence in a First Nations community – crucial when trying to attract aboriginal clients.

Because Smith has Level III certification, he currently has the insurance sign-off authority. “But as far as business goes,” Smith says, “We make those decisions together as equal partners.”

Ginnish currently has Level I certification, but he expects to earn Level III within about three years, which would enable him to run the firm on his own.

“I see myself growing and becoming the leading provider of insurance products to First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada,” he says. “I want to make sure the communities have the right coverage in place, and that they’re paying the proper premiums I want to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of due to the lack of First Nations presence in the insurance industry.”

Image courtesy of keerati /

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