“I don’t matter at all,” he said in a personal reference, “but the men who do matter are the privates and corporals who have gone through the Gethsemane of the front line trenches without a worry, save the worry they have about their dependents at home being cared for. These men and their families will demand that men who have given service to their country without profit to themselves shall represent them in the next Parliament..”
(McLaren, Toronto Globe, 3 Nov 1917, 4)
In anticipation of a possible wartime election, on 28 May 1915, the Liberal Party nominated John Inglis McLaren to run in Hamilton West. McLaren had just departed Canada in command the 19th Battalion. By the time of the December 1917 federal election and the formation of the Union Government, Liberals and Tories implored McLaren to withdraw in favour of a civilian Unionist nominee. He refused and contested the race as a soldier-candidate.
Born in Goderich, Canada West on 2 September 1865, McLaren was mayor of Hamilton (1909—1910) and commanding officer of the 91st Highlander Regiment. In October 1914, he was authorized to raise the 19th Battalion from central Ontario and Toronto. The unit deployed to France in September 1915 as part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division. McLaren remained in command until July 1916 when he was relieved by Major W. R. Turnbull. He was welcomed home to Hamilton in August and took charge of a brigade at Camp Borden.
At the Unionist nomination convention in November 1917, Great War Veteran’s Association delegates unanimously selected McLaren while political insiders supported the incumbent Conservative MP, Thomas Joseph Stewart. As a compromise, the convention settled on Colonel William Hendrie, former commanding officer of the 48th Highlander Regiment.
After a protest from Stewart and an official endorsement by Prime Minister Borden for the incumbent, Hendrie withdrew but sided with McLaren. Numerous attempts to reconcile the two sides and unite support behind Stewart failed. Stewart likely did not endear himself to the former 19th commander when the MP stated that he had been a “slave” to women and returned soldiers since the start of the war. The personal enmity between the two men dated back to the 1911 federal election when the Conservative Stewart had defeated then Liberal McLaren.
McLaren’s candidacy divided the Liberals and Tories alike. Many expressed a desire to support a returned soldier but worried about splitting the vote and allowing the Labour party to win. The Toronto Telegram endorsed the soldier-candidate: “A man with Col. McLaren’s record at the front was worthy of any honor that the people could give him.” In the result on 17 December, McLaren ran third to Labour candidate Walter Ritchie Rollo and the winner Stewart.
As a sign of his popularity among returned soldiers, McLaren received 448 votes compared to 193 for Stewart. However, among overseas soldiers, the totals were 44 to 1424. Since soldier ballots only listed the parties not the candidates names, any vote for the Government went to Stewart.
McLaren retired from the military in 1920. He died in Hamilton on 8 December 1948.