Hon. Michael Starr was born in 1910 as Michael Starchevski, to Ukrainian parents from the western region of Galicia. From Copper Cliff, Ontario, the family eventually moved to Montreal, to Toronto and then to Oshawa in 1921 where his mother had some Ukrainian friends. They settled in the south end of the city, close to factories as well as the Oshawa Creek. Michael attended Cederdale Public School, where his friend group was made up of others with Ukrainian or Eastern European background – many of whom also lived in the same area.
Michael entered the workforce in 1925 as a printer’s devil in order to help support his family (including his five younger siblings). However, his ambition for education remained high and he returned to complete an accelerated course at Oshawa Collegiate Institute (later named O’Neill CVI). This enabled him to work as a cost clerk at Pedlar People Limited, where he would gain increasing responsibilities over the years. As a result of his employer’s suggestion and with his father’s permission, he shortened his last name, Starchevski, to Starr in order for it to be more easily pronounced in English.
In 1933, during the Depression, he married Anne Zaritsky and they managed to live quite comfortably on his salary of just $15.00 per week. They built a house at 25 Olive Ave. where they raised their son and daughter and continued to reside for the remainder of their lives.
In 1944, after several failed attempts, Starr was elected to the Oshawa City Council as an Alderman. In the position, he is credited with making the City Board of Works into a modern and efficient department. After five years on City Council, he sought and was elected as Mayor in 1949 and re-elected to this position in 1951. During his three terms as Mayor, he oversaw many improvements in the City including the construction of the new municipal office-building, police station, fire hall and sewage disposal plant together with the annexation of a large section of East Whitby Township. During this time, Mr. Starr managed to continue to work as Sales Manager for the Pedlar People Ltd.
In 1952, he was elected as the Member of Parliament representing the Progressive-Conservative party. In July 1957, Mr. Starr was appointed Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government. This appointment made him the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to be appointed to the federal Cabinet. In September 1967, Robert Stanfield appointed Mr. Starr as interim opposition leader of the Party and House Leader until Stanfield took his seat. In the federal election of 1968, Mr. Starr was defeated by a very narrow margin by Ed Broadbent, later national leader of the New Democratic Party. With this election, Mr. Starr’s political career in elected politics ended.
The Starchevski family took part in Ukrainian social life in Oshawa, which included the Prosvita Society – a reading association where Michael’s father Matthew served as president. Other organizations were political groups such as the Ukrainian Labour/Farmer Temple and the Canadian Sitch Organization, which all served as centres for cultural activities such as musical and dramatic productions. The Prosvita Hall, for instance, sponsored a Ukrainian Athletic Club which excelled in softball. Mike Starr, the organizer, was willing to play any position and later served as coach and manager.
The newer generation of Ukrainian immigrants revitalized community institutions, like churches and halls, and established their own. Still, the older community and the newer interacted, with the former helping the latter. Starr, who at this time was serving as Mayor of Oshawa, would welcome newcomers to the city. He would also present them with certificates upon successful completion of their contracts and help with finding other jobs or housing – overall leaving a very positive impression.
Victoria Szeczepanski, another participant in the Museum’s project who emigrated from Poland at this time, had a few remarks about her first impressions of Oshawa. She said the following:
My husband took English lessons at Central Collegiate, where Michael Starr welcomed us to Oshawa. He asked that the citizens of Oshawa treat the newcomers with respect. Some people treated us well, and with respect. Others looked at us as newcomers and would occasionally call us DP.
Looking around at certain landmarks – like the Michael Starr Building or the Michael Starr trail – it is easy to guess at his overall lasting impact on Oshawa. However, when hearing from members of the Ukrainian community, or from other cultural groups, it becomes even clearer. Each political success was considered a success for the whole community, especially since he was the first federal Cabinet Minister of Ukrainian descent. Indeed, his overall contributions to the political landscape – throughout his journey from City Alderman to Mayor to Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government, are fondly remembered.
Michael Starr died March 16, 2000 at the age of 89. He is buried at St. Wolodymyr and St. Olha Ukrainian Cemetery, located in south Courtice.
No matter where he was, it was said that Michael Starr was always thinking about the future of Oshawa. In 1997, he told a story to the archivist for the Oshawa Museum. While driving along Highway 2, Starr said to his wife, “Anne, someday when you are driving through here it will all be lit up with houses and factories and everything.” She said to him years later, “How in the world did you know this?”
Much of the text for this article was originally written by summer student, Mia, for a video podcast: Listen to Mia tell the story of Mike Starr here: