The Writers’ Block: Myrna Kostash


Palahna Kosovan didn’t want to move to Edmonton. Or anywhere in Canada, for that matter.


The year was 1914. She was living with her family in a town in Galacia—what is now part of Ukraine—and wanted to stay there. Her father wanted her to marry Nikolai Maksymiuk, who had immigrated to Edmonton years earlier.  

“No, I don’t want to go,” Pahlana recounts in a 1975 documentary, Great Grand Mother. “Because I don’t know Canada, because I’m scared. I know it’s 23 years I live over there [in Galicia], maybe it’s danger for me, it’s one boy, only one time I see him. It’s not handy for me to go but I have to go.”


A commercial street in Edmonton with stores, sidewalks and pedestrians on both sides. A streetcar runs down the middle of the street.
A 1914 postcard of Edmonton’s First Street, photographed for Leonards Cigar Store. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.


An extraordinary community in Edmonton

Five decades later, her granddaughter, Myrna Kostash, couldn’t wait to get out of Edmonton. It was the 1960s and Alberta was too right-wing and rigid for a free spirit like her. She moved to Toronto, travelled through Europe, then lived in London—until she returned to Alberta to work on her book, All of Baba’s Children, in 1975. She stayed in the town of Two Hills for a few months, where she interviewed some of Alberta’s first Ukrainian immigrants and their descendents.

“I did the interviews, went back to Edmonton to start writing and then I just never went back to Toronto because I found this extraordinary community of Ukrainian Canadians in Edmonton,” says Kostash.

“They weren’t like the ones that I went to church camp with; they were much more like me in that they were left-wing, they were feminist, they were kind of bohemian. They came from Toronto. They came from Montreal. They were here in Edmonton in the late ‘70s and I landed among them and they brought me into their group.”


A woman poses for a portrait with her book, All of Baba’s Children, resting under her hands.
Myrna Kostash and her first book, All of Baba’s Children, photographed by the late Edmonton photographer Con Boland. Courtesy of Myrna Kostash.


“We’re still here” 

Ultimately, the group formed the Hromada Housing Co-op to build affordable housing in Old Strathcona. Kostash lived there along with writers, artists, lawyers and their children, including a teenage Chrystia Freeland, who is now Canada’s deputy prime minister. (Hromada still operates today, offering 21 mixed duplex and single family units.)

“When I left Alberta [in the ‘60s], it was still Social Credit and very uptight,” says Kostash. “I came back to a thriving community of independent filmmakers, theatre directors, magazine publishers. We had such a kind of austere defiance about staying. We’re not going to Vancouver, Los Angeles or Toronto, thank you very much. We’re staying here. We’re still here. Those three words would best sum up how I feel about Edmonton.”  

Kostash has flourished in Edmonton, becoming one of the city’s greatest literary ambassadors. She’s written countless magazine articles, several plays and radio documentaries, and more than a dozen creative and literary non-fiction books. Some of those include: All of Baba’s Children (1977), a look at the lives of Ukrainian-Canadians in Alberta, Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980), and No Kidding: Inside the Life of Teenage Girls (1987).

She’s also won numerous accolades, such as the City of Edmonton Book Prize and two Writers Guild of Alberta awards. She even has a road named after her: Kostash Drive, in the southwest neighbourhood of Keswick. “It took me by surprise,” she says of the honour.


A woman holds onto the pole of a street sign that reads Kostash Drive.
Myrna Kostash on the road named after her in southwest Edmonton. Courtesy of Myrna Kostash.


Searching for ghosts

Kostash’s latest book, Ghosts in a Photograph, is a deep dive into the lives of her maternal and paternal grandparents before and after they immigrated to Alberta in the early 1900s. They were some of the first Ukrainian immigrants to live in Edmonton and Royal Park, near Vegreville. 

“In 1911, 692 Edmontonians, or 2.8 percent of the population, were of Ukrainian origin and worked mainly as unskilled labourers and domestic servants but also aspiring merchants and teachers,” Kostash writes. 

More than a century later, Edmonton is home to the largest number of Ukrainian-Canadians in the country. They made up 10.8 percent of the city’s population according to the 2016 Canadian census. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees have since moved to Alberta, a result of the ongoing Russian invasion in the eastern European country. So far, Kostash’s relatives in Ukraine are safe—they live far from the fighting—but she constantly worries about them. 

“It's heartbreaking,” she says. “It's made me a patriotic Ukrainian in a way that I never thought I would actually feel. They are remarkable people and I have roots in them. I couldn't be more proud but also just angry about what the outcome might be for them.”


From river valleys to “Redmonton”

Questions of identity—cultural, political, religious—fuel Kostash. What makes us who we are? She credits her parents, both school teachers, for encouraging her love of learning.  “I think that was the breeding ground of what I consider the seed of everything else—curiosity—and it’s the root of nonfiction,” she says. 

Edmonton has also shaped Kostash as a writer and a person, particularly the city’s river valley, cemeteries and progressive politics. One of her books, Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River (2005), takes a look at the waterway that runs through Edmonton and other communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. 

In Ghosts in a Photograph, Kostash details her search for her grandfather Nikolai Maksymiuk’s grave in Edmonton. “Cemeteries are where so many of my family are now buried here,” she says. “It's my responsibility as the one who's living here to maintain them. I see that they're maintained, and to have the priest come every spring after Easter and bless the graves.”

Ghosts—as well as some of her previous books—also touch on Edmonton’s left-leaning politics, especially among Ukrainian-Canadians. "I'm not a historian, but I happen to write about history because I'm looking for something else—what lies behind the question of identity," says Kostash.

"Who am I? Where do I come from? It's as basic as that."


The Writers' Block series features yeg-cellent authors and their latest work. Read the other chapters: