150 Joan O’Malley Canada’s Flag Lady


Department of Canadian Heritage Records

Joan O'Malley photo

Joan O’Malley with the First Maple Leaf flag.

Joan Kathleen O’Malley (nee Donovan ) was born in Dauphin, Manitoba in 1944.

Her parents were Kenneth Morgan Donovan, a British home child sent to Canada in 1929 from Cardiff Wales and Bernadette McCaffrey born in in Luskville Que. Bernadette’s Mum , Mary Leahy whose parents came from Templemore, County Tipperary. Bernadette’s Dad Michael McCaffrey was also born in Canada and his family came from the North of Ireland.

Joan was married on October 12, 1963 to Brian James Martin O’Malley.

So how did Joan get to sew Canada’s First Maple Leaf flag?

Joan says “It was simply a matter of fate”. Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Joan’s father (Ken Donovan) were responsible for her involvement in this project.

At the time, Prime Minister Lester Pearson had made an election promise to deliver a new National flag – to be a flag for all Canadians and commissioned a group under the direction of John Ross Matheson to come up with a suitable design for the new Canadian flag.

After sifting through more than 6,000 suggested designs and many raucous debates in Parliament, three designs were selected.

Prime Minister Pearson was anxious to see what the designs looked like while flying as a flag so he asked that he be provided with flags for each of the three designs.

Late on Friday afternoon, November 6th 1964 his request was made for the prototypes to be delivered to him in time for him to fly them over the weekend at Harrington Lake in Ontario.

Many people were involved in the production of the prototype flags. The problem was that the only design samples in existence then were drawings. Ken Donovan was the purchasing agent for the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission who had been asked to meet the Prime Minister’s request.

Despite the lateness of the day Mr. Donovan managed to acquire 30 yards of bunting from a Hull Camping Equipment store and had it delivered by taxi to the Commission’s office on Kaladar Ave. The production crew busied themselves silk screening the prototypes for the three flags.

By 9.0 PM it only remained for the materials to be sewn into flyable flags: and a seamstress was needed to do this. Late on the Friday evening it was Joan O’Malley who would fulfill the role when Ken Donovan was asked if he could find a seamstress to assemble the flags. After 5 PM most businesses were closed, so Mr. Donovan contacted his daughter to see if she could assist.

Of course Joan agreed and she and her husband loaded her Singer sewing machine into their car and headed to the Commission’s office on Kaladar Ave in Ottawa where the flags were being silk screened.

Sewing the flags was not easy task with her machine as it was not designed for the heavy bunting material used for the flags, so much of the work was completed by hand sewing the edges together to make the flags flyable.

Two replicas of each of the three designs were eventually completed and around midnight Ken Donovan headed for the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa to deliver the completed flags.

Even though Joan’s work became historical for Canada, she never actually met with Prime Minister Pearson.

The Maple Leaf was first raised on Parliament Hill Ottawa on Canada Day 1965.