Skip to main content

Diane MacKenzie.

Whether she was recruiting doctors to care for the people of Haida Gwaii, procuring healthy meals for the homeless of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, or teaching in Ghana, Diane MacKenzie built a career out of her profound belief in social justice.

In a plot reminiscent of the film The Grand Seduction, Ms. MacKenzie was instrumental in bringing consistent medical care to the remote coastal communities of Haida Gwaii. Working as co-ordinator for the Queen Charlotte Islands Health Care Society council, and in co-operation with local residents, she recruited health-care professionals and negotiated their wages and working conditions. With a grin, she would entice them with the prospect of kayaking after office hours.

"She worked hard to begin better services for us … not just Haidas but [all] people in the region," said Arnie Bellis, former vice-president with the Council of the Haida Nation.

He described having to go to the Canadian Forces base in Masset, B.C., as a child, where a dentist would arrive by float plane every six months and terrify patients with archaic equipment such as a squeaky drill operated by a foot pedal.

In consultation with Haida leaders, Ms. MacKenzie also established suicide-prevention workshops providing young people a new set of tools to help in their development and ensure their protection.

"It brought us to another level of understanding," Mr. Bellis said. "A whole new concept of looking for help in different venues."

Ms. MacKenzie died on Sept. 30 in Vancouver from cardiac arrest. She was 74.

Born on May 18, 1941, to Blanche (née MacKenzie) and Jack Davis, Diane grew up in London, Ont. Her parents divorced when she was young and she became like a surrogate parent to her younger siblings.

After completing a degree in English at the University of Western Ontario in 1963, she taught language classes in Ghana as a CUSO volunteer.

She married John Baigent, another Canadian volunteer, in 1964 and the couple returned to Canada, where she continued working for CUSO, first in Ottawa, then Halifax and finally for a few years in Vancouver.

In 1968, her two eldest sons, Kevin and Marty, were born in Halifax – but they were not twins.

She and her husband, who were active in the civil-rights movement, adopted a black newborn whom they named after Martin Luther King Jr. Four years later, in Vancouver, their third son, Andrew, was born.

Ms. Baigent, as she was then known, ran for the NDP MLA seat in North Vancouver-Capilano in 1974 and was defeated.

She'd begin speeches by riffing off of NDP Premier Dave Barrett's self-deprecating line: "I'm short, fat Dave Barrett from Victoria."

"I'm short, fat Diane Baigent from North Vancouver," she'd echo.

In 1979, now divorced and going by the name MacKenzie, she gathered up her sons and headed to Haida Gwaii, totally immersing her family in the Haida culture.

"I'm sure I was the only blond-haired Haida dancer in the history of the Haida Nation," Andrew said.

Ms. MacKenzie dug deep into her pockets in 1985 to bail out native protesters at Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island), who were fighting to save traditional Haida lands from unsustainable logging practices.

As a tribute to her work on the islands, she was adopted into the Raven Clan by one of the elders and given a Haida button blanket bearing the clan crest.

"It doesn't make her a Haida but it makes her a member of a clan, and it's an honourable position," Mr. Bellis said.

Ms. MacKenzie returned to Vancouver in 1987 to take a job as director at the Carnegie Centre, a community hub popularly referred to as the living room of the Downtown Eastside, serving vulnerable members of the community.

The area is often labelled as "Canada's poorest postal code," with a high incidence of poverty, drug use, sex-trade activity, crime and violence. It's also where the plight of murdered and missing aboriginal women first came to national attention.

The Downtown Eastside has a strong history of political activism, much of it initiated at the Carnegie Centre during Ms. MacKenzie's decade as director.

"It was a very bottom-up organization. I think her strength was supporting the association board and the staff in implementing new ideas," said Donald MacPherson, her replacement as director.

The Downtown Eastside established the first supervised injection site and needle-exchange program in North America, an initiative Ms. MacKenzie had lobbied for as director of the Carnegie Centre. InSite, which opened in 2003, runs steadily for 18 hours until 4 a.m. Approximately 800 people use the booths every day.

Ms. MacKenzie's commitment to the Carnegie Centre was unquenchable.

Andrew remembers the boys helping out at Christmas dinners, always a good meal for visitors needing respite from the local slum hotels or a wet night on the street, and maybe a city dignitary would pop in for a photo op.

"She treated everyone exactly the same," Mr. MacPherson said, "whether they were the mayor, the city manager, the security staff at Carnegie, the older patron who walked into the place or a refugee in the learning centre."

Serving healthy meals was another hard-fought campaign initiated by Ms. MacKenzie. People wanted the same old smokies and greasy fries, but kitchen staff tossed out the deep fryer and started grinding their own flour and serving salads.

"If you came into the Carnegie with one dollar, you got one dollar's worth of nutrition," Mr. MacPherson said.

A tragic side note to Ms. MacKenzie's years at the Carnegie was her own debilitating illness. She suffered many years with erythermalgia, a neurovascular disorder causing extreme burning pain in her extremities.

She'd sit at her desk with her feet in ice buckets and ask staff to replenish them several times a day.

A colleague once asked Ms. MacKenzie why she wouldn't quit and go on long-term disability. "My feet would still hurt and I wouldn't be doing the good work," she replied.

She had both her legs amputated in the mid-2000s and then developed the disease in her hands.

Late in her career she was asked by Philip Owen, who was then mayor of Vancouver, to open a second community centre for vulnerable populations along the south Granville Street strip.

She consulted with disadvantaged youth in the area over endless boxes of pizza before opening the Gathering Place in 1995.

Ms. MacKenzie's memorial at the Gathering Place was standing room only and her ashes were placed in a traditional Haida bentwood box.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct