While Helen Burgess is looking forward to spending more time with all her grandchildren, she will sorely miss her clients and the staff at First Nations Insurance Services (FNIS). Burgess recently retired after spending 22 years as the manager of FNIS.
“I was an emotional wreck for the first week (after retiring) because of the parties held on my behalf,” Burgess said. “I have felt this brokerage deep in my heart for the past 22 years.”
Burgess began her career with FNIS after working at Saskatchewan Legal Aid for 19 years. Burgess said she really didn’t know much about the insurance industry, but it was a chance to work in her community. “To begin with it would take me to a place that I always wanted to be, and that was to work with my First Nations people,” she said.
Burgess said historically First Nations people hadn’t brought a lot of insurance coverage into their lives, never mind the retirement portion of it, and this was a way to bring a great product into their lives.
Back then FNIS was a small enterprise. In fact, the year before she started the business had a net income of $252. But over time Burgess and her staff helped grow the business. She said three employees in particular, Cindy Johnson and Beatrice Arcand, who are still with FNIS, and Stuart McLellan who left a few years ago, were important to growing the business.
“They were absolutely key to my learning and to the success of the brokerage, and continue to be to this day,” Burgess said. “They were really my saviours, my anchors. They just shared the knowledge they had because they had been there for a couple of years already.”
FNIS started out exclusively offering services to Indian bands and their institutions, said Burgess, who is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation. And it differed from anything else on the market because their plans enhanced and protected Treaty health rights, she said. As the years passed FNIS opened their services to more First Nations people in the province and expanded over the border into the North West Territories and northern Alberta, specifically Fort Chipewyan. “We brought the services to the Mikisew Cree Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation,” she said. “And we still have those clients to this day.”
Burgess remembers her first flight into Fort Chipewyan in a small, eight-seat airplane from Fort McMurray.
“I do battle claustrophobia somewhat, but I turned it over to some of my traditional beliefs and I just knew the Creator put me where I needed to be at the time and it was all in the Creator’s hands. “However, I will not say I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “It was quite the experience.”
Burgess was a hands-on administrator who travelled to meet her clients wherever they lived in Saskatchewan.
“There isn’t a community I have not been to,” she said. In the past year Burgess stepped aside as manager to work as a licensed agent and to help the new manager, Tammy McKay, get established. She said the best part of the job was building relationships with the staff and clients.
“I didn’t think of them as clients first, but more as friends and family,” she said. “And knowing you were bringing such a positive life change to them.” She said it was so rewarding to explain the importance of having benefits in place and having a plan for retirement. And then to help someone who had a death in the family or who had been stricken with a disability.
Burgess has spent her life helping other people, including her own ever-growing family. She and her husband Larry have three sons, a daughter, 12 grand children and one great grandchild. She had thought about retirement, but when a young friend developed a terminal illness it brought home the fact that life is too short. “Not everyone has the privilege of retiring and it is something we really need to embrace and give a lot of thought to,” she said.
Besides seeing more of their grandkids, Helen and Larry plan on exploring the Yukon and to continue to spend more time near the water at Sandy Lake, not too far from their farm north of Prince Albert. But she won’t forget what an honour it was to manage FNIS.
“Kitsaki gave her the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “I’ve absolutely loved what I’ve done. That is what I’m really going to miss. The relationships with our client base and the people I worked with at the community and Kitsaki management level.”