Although she lived here 20 years ago, Diane Mackenzie, the former coordinator for the Queen Charlotte Islands Health and Human Resources Society, maintains many connections on the islands.
The remarkable woman just retired at the end of May after many years of service to the communities of Haida Gwaii and more recently the Downtown Eastside and Granville Street.
After she left the islands in the mid-1980s, she went on to coordinate two Vancouver facilities for the marginalized people of two inner-city neighbourhoods, the Carnegie Centre on Main and Hastings and the Gathering Place at Seymour and Helmcken.
Faith and Jack Thorgeirson of Masset recall Ms Mackenzie’s arrival here in 1978. She came for a job interview and maintains that she only got the position because she stepped in doggy doo in their garden.
“Not so,” they say. She was the right person for the job and became their good friend and neighbour.
Those who worked in the health care field remember the chaotic milieu Ms Mackenzie entered. The Queen Charlotte Hospital had been run by the church and the new society was to now serve the entire islands with clinics in Masset, Port Clements, Sandspit and Queen Charlotte. The plan was part of provincial pilot project to bring services such as the public health nurses, social workers, family doctors hospital care and more under one umbrella. Still in its early years, the society had been through several administrative staff and was being pulled in many directions.
Maria Ernst, who lives in Sandspit, was nurse at the Queen Charlotte clinic when Ms Mackenzie arrived.
“She had a wonderful gift of bringing out the best of everyone,” she said.
Not only did Ms Mackenzie oversee bringing the medical clinic, which had been where Rainbows now is, on site with the hospital, but she also saw to the recruitment and salary negotiations for new doctors across the islands.
“People forget that was a new way to pay doctors, with salary,” said another former resident of the islands who now lives in Vancouver, Eloise Yaxley,.
She worked for the health care society as a secretary when Ms Mackenzie came on board and went on to work with her again at the Gathering Place.
Ms Yaxley says there was no doctor in Masset when she moved to the islands in the early 1970s, so one was expected to get sick on every second Friday when the physician visited. There was a military hospital in Masset, but the doctors there did not see civilians unless they were violently ill.
Ms Mackenzie did an incredible job of negotiating the political minefields and worked very hard at establishing rapport between the Haida, the military and the community of Masset, she says.
Another friend, Masset resident David Phillips says, “She is such a heartfelt person, she really opened the door for better service delivery.”
Arnie Bellis agrees. “On a personal level, she went out of her way to make things a lot better around here,” he says. He remembers being the basketball coach and his team needing some special help. “She brought in a peer counsellor to help the situation. She didn’t have to do that,” he says.
When the lure of the city took her away, the islands loss was Vancouver’s gain.
She was offered the job of running the Carnegie Centre, the library and community centre in Vancouver’s beleaguered downtown eastside.
Ms Mackenzie was instrumental in bringing innovative programs to the facility.
“It became the living room for the people of the Downtown Eastside,” says Ms Yaxley.
Not only do the people in this troubled area need somewhere to learn skills and have access to health care and other services, but they just need a place to take a break from the tension and energy of life on the street.
After eight or nine years there, she moved on to create the Gathering Place, a community centre for the street people of the Granville Street area.
Ms Yaxley says worked hard to connect with the youth and other clients in this incredibly intense part of the inner city and provide programs they needed.
“She believed in hiring people who showed up and were willing to develop skills. It wasn’t about bringing people from outside the community to run programs,” she says.
Throughout all of this, Ms Mackenzie suffered from a rare debilitating disease that she described as being like migraine headaches for the feet. Often she sat at the office with her feet in icy buckets of water, to relieve the pain.
Ms Yaxley asked her why she didn’t just quit and go on long term disability, but Ms Mackenzie would say, ‘My feet would still hurt and I wouldn’t be doing the good work.”
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