Donald Roderick MacLaren was one of Canada’s most decorated World War I pilots, a pioneer in Canada’s aviation industry, and the first employee of Trans-Canada Airlines, the predecessor of Air Canada. In his later years, MacLaren learned about the Bahá’í Faith and served on its national governing council. He firmly believed in Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the “earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,” and is remembered among those who expressed their faith in a better world through action
Donald MacLaren was born in Ottawa on 28 May 1893. Seven years later, his family moved to Calgary, where he attended public school and then Western Canada College. MacLaren’s family moved to Vancouver in 1911, but Donald and one of his brothers went east to attend McGill University in Montréal.
Despite his urban background, his heart lay in Canada’s vast northland. It was during his visits to the north that he learned and fell in love with the Cree language. Poor health forced him to leave school early in 1914 and return to the west, but it was in Montréal that he saw his first airplane. He was not particularly interested in flying, but little did he know the significant role that airplanes would play in his future.
In 1917, a recruiting advertisement in a newspaper caught MacLaren’s eye. The advertisement announced that a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) recruiting officer would be in Vancouver to meet young men interested in joining the Air Force. On 10 May 1917, MacLaren enlisted in the RFC and headed for France via half a dozen training stations, while his brother joined the Royal Navy.
His brief but eventful service in the Air Force established him as one of Canada’s outstanding pilots. His career with the RFC came to an end on 10 October 1918, when he broke his leg wrestling with a friend, but his career in aviation had only begun.
The Canadian government established aviation branches for fisheries patrols, aerial mapping and training civilians, and MacLaren was summoned to Vancouver in 1919 to select a suitable site for an air base. He chose Jericho Beach at the south entrance to False Creek. In 1924, he bought a second-hand HS2L flying boat, followed by a Curtis JN-4 “Jenny”; and, with financial backing, he started Pacific Airways Limited, which provided freight and passenger service between Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and settlements up the coast. In 1928, Western Canada Airways Ltd. bought MacLaren’s company but left him in charge of Pacific Lines when the assets of WCA and an eastern company, the Aviation Corporation of Canada, were combined to form Canadian Airways Limited.
In 1937, C.D. Howe, then Minister of Transport, asked MacLaren to help form Trans-Canada Airlines, the predecessor to Air Canada. Five days after proclamation of the Trans-Canada Airlines Act, MacLaren signed on to become TCA’s first employee.
Donald MacLaren and his wife, Verna , learned about the Bahá’í Faith in Winnipeg from Ross Woodman — one of the first members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada. Donald and Verna joined the Bahá’í community in 1952. He was later elected to the National Spiritual Assembly and served on that institution from 1954 to 1957.
In October 1967, Donald and Verna represented the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada at the Intercontinental Bahá’í Conference in Sydney, Australia. Sadly, Verna passed away from cancer in 1968, but Donald’s service to the Bahá’í Faith continued, inspired by his wife, who had, as he described, “… led me into the Faith … lived as a Bahá’í … [and] taught me how to treat and behave toward my fellow man.”
In the following years, MacLaren met and married his second wife, Alice. Wherever they traveled, they spoke about the Bahá’í Faith. He was known for preferring to recite his prayers in the Cree language. At the age of 85, MacLaren was quoted as saying in an interview, when asked about his enthusiasm for the Bahá’í Faith, “If you believe in it, you’re active in it.” Donald MacLaren passed away in Vancouver on 4 July 1988.
Early Canadian Bahá’ís
The Bahá’í community has a rich history of members who have contributed greatly to their society as well as to the early development of the Bahá’í community in Canada and the world.