Avenue of Champions

By Jannie Edwards

by Conor Kerr
Nightwood Editions
2021/$21.95/224 pp.

Given that Edmonton has the second-largest urban Indigenous population in the country, it astounds me that it took me a lifetime of reading Alberta books to encounter a story like Conor Kerr’s debut novel, Avenue of Champions, set in Edmonton/Amiskwacîwâskahikan, where Kerr has ancestral roots in the Métis, Ukrainian and Papaschase communities. That it took so long speaks volumes about the erasure of Indigenous stories in the wake of colonialism. Told from multiple perspectives and by turns tender, hilarious and heartbreaking, the novel dramatizes young Daniel’s coming of age interwoven with the lives of his friends and family living near the so-called Avenue of Champions, Edmonton’s 118th Avenue, where revitalization efforts continue to be stymied by crime, prostitution and drug houses. Daniel says, “Thomas King wrote stories about how it’s turtles all the way down…. [Here] it’s slumlords all the way down.”

Reading Avenue of Champions was for me simultaneously familiar and foreign. I know all the novel’s streets and landmarks, but the city that Kerr’s characters inhabit is very different from the one I move through. When Daniel lands a government job in “Indigenous engagement” and moves south of the river, his friend Alex challenges, “You trying to be white? Métis people don’t live on the south side.” As a kid, Daniel thought “everyone who lived on the south side was rich.” I’m not rich, but I am white and I live on land where Daniel’s great-grandmother (whom Daniel calls Original Granny or OG kohkum) was born. She was exiled with her family to the road allowances near St. Paul when the Papaschase nation surrendered their original reserve on the land that is now suburban Mill Woods. When the family is forced off the road allowance in the 1960s, they return to Edmonton and rent a cheap house on 118th Avenue. But she refuses to revisit her birthplace south of the river: “Too much pain, too much blood and tears.” Our colonial heritage.

Original Granny is a strong Métis woman. She supports her large family by brewing top-grade moonshine. Daniel’s Granny carries this resilient spirit into another generation. She rescues him and his brother Charlie from the child welfare system and raises them on her own in the city. She grows marijuana in her seniors complex and sells enough weed brownies to the old folks to finance her retirement on the coast. A grandmother myself, I celebrate these role models of matriarchal independence, resourcefulness and funny, tender and fierce charisma.

I love that Kerr gives Daniel’s kohkum the last word: “I hear you, my boy.” After this vibrant, accomplished first novel, we can all look forward to hearing more from this gifted writer.

Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.

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