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FEATURE A Starr is born: The story of Canada’s first Ukrainian Cabinet Minister

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

In today’s world, many politicians have reached celebrity status, always surrounded by security and staff members, on the other side of an unseen brick wall to the public.

But one MP from Oshawa was truly someone that could be called “a man of the people.”

Born Michael Starchewsky on Nov. 14, 1910, Michael Starr is one of Oshawa’s most well-known public figures.

His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who came to Canada seeking a better life. Growing up in the city, Starr dropped out of high school after Grade 10 and eventually began working with Pedlar People Limited.

According to biographer Myron Momryk, it was while working in the Pedlar People office Starr turned his sights towards politics.

He was an influential figure in the local Ukrainian community.

“There was a rather large Ukrainian population. Bloor Street was almost like a little Ukrainian village,” Momryk says.

Momryk explains Starr used his “personal popularity” to earn the vote as an Alderman for Oshawa City Council from 1944 to 1949.

He would later serve as mayor from 1949 to 1952, also running an unsuccessful bid for the Ontario Legislature in 1951.

He soon set his sights on higher aspirations.

The management and staff of Pedlar People were highly conservatively-minded, Momryk explains, and would support Starr in his political aspirations.

These became fruitful as Starr was elected to the House of Commons in 1952 as a Progressive Conservative.

He later made headlines when he became the first Canadian cabinet minister of Ukrainian descent in 1957 as Minister of Labour.

Momryk says it was a different time, and the media “kept emphasizing [Starr’s] Ukrainian descent.”

“He was a political pioneer.”

Even as his political status grew, Starr remained very accessible to the community.

“Saturday morning, there was a line up of people at his door. People would even come to him with their marital problems,” Momryk states. “He was very much a person-to-person fellow.”

Momryk says he found it particularly interesting that despite only having a Grade 10 education, Starr found himself as Labour Minister.

At the time, unemployment was a serious problem in Canada.

To combat this, Starr initiated what was called the “Winter Works” program.

Up until that time, most trade industries involving outdoor work would shut down for the winter.

“That was a very serious problem, and a real drain on the country’s finances and resources,” Momryk explains. “He was pushing so people work in trades all year round.”

Momryk says this is just one example of Starr trying “his damndest to fight
unemployment.”

Starr also worked to create a more compassionate approach for the unemployed, including extending unemployment benefits to women and seasonal workers, and increasing federal funding to provinces for vocational training.

“He was very worried about the unemployment. He saw what that did in the 1930s as he was an adult during the Great Depression,” he says.

Even after leaving politics, workers’ issues remained important to Starr, as he served as chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Board of Ontario from 1973 to 1980.

On the political front, he would serve as Opposition House Leader from 1965 to 1968.

Starr was a candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1967 but was eliminated on the second ballot.

However, Momryk doesn’t believe it was something Starr was really engrossed in.

“I don’t think he had any serious ideas about being chosen as the leader of the Conservative Party,” he said.

In the interim, he would serve as Leader of the Opposition for two months before Robert Stanfield won his seat in a by-election.

Although Starr had been a conservative since the 1930s, Momryk says some would argue he was in the wrong party.

However, he remarks “there is a distinction between conservatives and progressive conservatives”, and his view, Starr was the latter, even having a “tinge of a Red Tory.”

“He believed using the government for the people’s benefit.”

While progressively minded, Starr was staunchly anti-Communist.

“That’s one thread that runs through most of his career,” Momryk says.

He notes a number of Starr’s opponents when running for Oshawa city council were “strongly left,” and it was something he spoke out against.

“He continued that up almost until he retired.”

After achieving re-election six times, Starr faced his biggest challenge during the 1968 election in the form of 32-year-old NDP candidate Ed Broadbent.

The end result saw Starr lose by a mere 15 votes, a result that Momryk says lingered with him for a long time.

“When he lost to Broadbent, that bothered him,” Momryk states, adding a lot of liberals who had previously voted for Starr were swept up in Trudeaumania.

“A lot of the young people began looking for a change rather than having these older politicians. Starr fitted into that category,” he said.

While Momryk says there wasn’t necessarily personal animosity against Broadbent from Starr, he “did not appreciate people mentioning Broadbent in his presence.”

Starr would run for office a few more times afterward, but Momryk said campaigning was much more challenging with his older age.

“After a while, it’s not easy,” he said.

Momryk notes Staff became a campaign manager for other candidates and encouraged people from ethnic groups to run for office.

There was plenty to keep him busy after politics, as he served as a citizenship court judge in Toronto, and then his run at the Workers’ Compensation Board, a position he really enjoyed, Momryk says.

“He was very happy. He dealt with unemployed workers and people who had difficulty getting jobs.”

In 1983, the Oshawa’s provincial government building was named in Starr’s honour. The seven-floor tower still dominates the city’s downtown sightline to this day.

“He was proud of that. It was a monument to his career,” Momryk says.

Also around that time, he served a four-year term as Honorary Colonel of the Ontario Regiment (RCAC) in Oshawa.

Over the years, he also awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, Canadian Centennial Medal, and the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal.

In researching for his biography on Starr, Momyrk says a common occurrence was that almost no one had a bad word to speak of the man.

“Everyone kept saying the same thing, ‘He was a nice fellow”,” he states with a laugh.

Momryk notes while often a speaker at community events, he didn’t think Starr was always comfortable dealing with the media.

“I know when he was interviewed by the press or on television, he was a bit hesitant. He was not really a good TV performer,” he said.

However, there may have been a good reason for this.

Shortly after his defeat to Broadbent in 1968, a Toronto Star reporter interviewed him, and later wrote a story alleging the former politician was extremely despondent about the loss.

“That really, really hurt him. When he had future contact with reporters, he was a bit hesitant. It took a lot of work to draw him out,” Momryk says.

“He was a very modest man and didn’t like to talk about himself a lot.”

One other challenge for Momryk was Starr’s apparent lack of an archiving system.

“When he was defeated in 1968, he had an office full of files, dealing with labour, immigration and all types of issues,” he says. “He didn’t know about the Public Archives of Canada, and basically everything went into the dumpster.”

Therefore, when Momryk was trying to write Starr’s biography, “he had very little to show me.”

Momryk says he relied greatly on debates in the House of Commons and newspaper reports instead of interviews with Starr himself.

Fast forward to his later years, Starr remained a constant in the Oshawa community, often being invited to weddings and other events.

According to Momryk, he worked hard on creating joint projects between Canada and Ukraine after the latter’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

He also pushed vigorously for the creation of a university in Oshawa.

Michael Starr passed away on March 16, 2000, at the age of 89, predeceased by his wife Anne Zaritsky, and his son Dr. Robert Starr.

His daughter, Joan, passed away only a few months later.

In addition to the Michael Starr Building, there is also a recreational trail named after him in Oshawa.

So what was Starr like behind the scenes?

“Very ordinary,” Momryk says, noting Starr was a fan of watching John Wayne movies, and a proud member of the Rotary Club.

In the end, many politicians disappear from the public’s view after retiring, but Momryk is glad Starr’s contributions are still very much apparent in the City of Oshawa.

“They remember the name [of Michael Starr],” he said.

Momryk will be sharing stories from Starr’s life as part of The Oshawa Historical Society’s April Speaker Series on Tuesday, April 16 at 7 p.m.

The Speaker Series will be held at the Arts Resource Centre, located at 45 Queen Street, Oshawa. Admission is $3 or free for members of the Oshawa Historical Society.

However, Momryk doesn’t believe it was something Starr was really engrossed in.

“I don’t think he had any serious ideas about being chosen as the leader of the Conservative Party,” he said.

In the interim, he would serve as Leader of the Opposition for two months before Robert Stanfield won his seat in a by-election.

Although Starr had been a conservative since the 1930s, Momryk says some would argue he was in the wrong party.

However, he remarks “there is a distinction between conservatives and progressive conservatives,” and his view, Starr was the latter, even having a “tinge of a Red Tory.”

“He believed using the government for the people’s benefit.”

While progressively minded, Starr was staunchly anti-Communist.

“That’s one thread that runs through most of his career,” Momryk says.

He notes a number of Starr’s opponents when running for Oshawa city council were “strongly left,” and it was something he spoke out against.

“He continued that up almost until he retired.”

After achieving re-election six times, Starr faced his biggest challenge during the 1968 election in the form of 32-year-old NDP candidate Ed Broadbent.

The end result saw Starr lose by a mere 15 votes, a result that Momryk says lingered with him for a long time.

“When he lost to Broadbent, that bothered him,” Momryk states, adding a lot of liberals who had previously voted for Starr were swept up in Trudeaumania.

“A lot of the young people began looking for a change rather than having these older politicians. Starr fitted into that category,” he said.

While Momryk says there wasn’t necessarily personal animosity against Broadbent from Starr, he “did not appreciate people mentioning Broadbent in his presence.”

Starr would run for office a few more times afterward, but Momryk said campaigning was much more challenging with his older age.

“After a while, it’s not easy,” he said.

Momryk notes Starr became a campaign manager for other candidates and encouraged people from ethnic groups to run for office.

There was plenty to keep him busy after politics, as he served as a citizenship court judge in Toronto, and then his run at the Workers’ Compensation Board, a position he really enjoyed, Momryk says.

“He was very happy. He dealt with unemployed workers and people who had difficulty getting jobs.”

In 1983, Oshawa’s provincial government building was named in Starr’s honour. The seven-floor tower still dominates the city’s downtown sightline to this day.

“He was proud of that. It was a monument to his career,” Momryk says.

Also around that time, he served a four-year term as Honorary Colonel of the Ontario Regiment (RCAC) in Oshawa.

Over the years, he was also awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal, Canadian Centennial Medal, and the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal.

In researching for his biography on Starr, Momryk says a common occurrence was that almost no one had a bad word to speak of the man.

“Everyone kept saying the same thing, ‘He was a nice fellow,” he states with a laugh.

Momryk notes while often a speaker at community events, he didn’t think Starr was always comfortable dealing with the media.

“I know when he was interviewed by the press or on television, he was a bit hesitant. He was not really a good TV performer,” he said.

However, there may have been a good reason for this.

Shortly after his defeat to Broadbent in 1968, a Toronto Star reporter interviewed him, and later wrote a story alleging the former politician was extremely despondent about the loss.

“That really, really hurt him. When he had future contact with reporters, he was a bit hesitant. It took a lot of work to draw him out,” Momryk says. “He was a very modest man and didn’t like to talk about himself a lot.”

One other challenge for Momryk was Starr’s apparent lack of an archiving system.

“When he was defeated in 1963, he had an office full of files, dealing with labour, immigration and all types of issues,” he says. “Starr was not aware of the services provided by the Public Archives of Canada, to preserve his papers as minister of labour and basically everything went into the dumpster.”
Therefore, when Momryk was trying to write Starr’s biography, “he had very little to show me.”

Momryk says he relied greatly on debates in the House of Commons and newspaper reports instead of interviews with Starr himself.

Fast forward to his later years, Starr remained a constant in the Oshawa community, often being invited to weddings and other events.

According to Momryk, he worked hard on creating joint projects between Canada and Ukraine after the latter’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

He also pushed vigorously for the creation of a university in Oshawa.

Michael Starr passed away on March 16, 2000, at the age of 89, predeceased by his wife Anne Zaritsky, and his son Dr. Robert Starr.

His daughter, Joan, passed away only a few months later.

In addition to the Michael Starr Building, there is also a recreational trail named after him in Oshawa.

So what was Starr like behind the scenes?

“Very ordinary,” Momryk says, noting Starr was a fan of watching John Wayne movies, and a proud member of the Rotary Club.

In the end, many politicians disappear from the public’s view after retiring, but Momryk is glad Starr’s contributions are still very much apparent in the City of Oshawa.

“They remember the name [of Michael Starr],” he said.

Momryk will be sharing stories from Starr’s life as part of The Oshawa Historical Society’s April Speaker Series on Tuesday, April 16 at 7 p.m.

The Speaker Series will be held at the Arts Resource Centre, located at 45 Queen Street, Oshawa. Admission is $3 or free for members of the Oshawa Historical Society.

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

I’ve driven by the Michael Starr Building in Oshawa likely hundreds, maybe thousands of times.
Every time I did this, I thought to myself – just who is Michael Starr?
I knew that to have your name on a building you must have done something notable.
So when I was brainstorming ideas for the Fourth Estate, the name Michael Starr again popped into my head.
Later that week, I saw that author Myron Momryk was coming to Oshawa for a speaking engagement to discuss his biography on Starr.
It was clear to me that it wasn’t just a coincidence, I needed to do some research.
I searched Mr. Momryk’s name on Google (welcome to 2019), and found his contact information.
One phone call later, and I was much more aware of who Michael Starr was.
Michael Starr was a community leader.
Michael Starr was a voice in support of the unemployed.
Michael Starr was Canada’s first Cabinet Minister of Ukrainian descent.
Having learned over the last year I too have some Ukrainian blood in my veins, I found this particularly interesting.
Through my conversation with Myron, and my own research, I learned a great deal more about an important figure in the city’s history.
Starr seems like he was a true “man of the people” politician, starting off as an alderman, then mayor, then a federal MP.
Apparently people would line up in front of his house to speak with him about their problems and concerns.
Starr passed away in 2000, when I was still in high school. I wish I had the opportunity to meet him, but I’m honoured to be able to share some of his story with our readers.