This is one of those ‘story behind the story’ accounts. How ordinary people contribute to big or lasting events.
Canada’s current flag is only 50 years old, so it’s a bit easier to trace how it came to be. Although a fair number of more-prominent people and politicians can take credit for creating a new national symbol with the now-famous red maple leaf design, that design still had to make the leap from paper to cloth.
This engaging account by Robert Sibley for the Ottawa Citizen (with video) retells how 20-year-old Joan O’Malley got hauled out late one night by her dad, Ken Donovan, with an urgent request to come sew up prototypes of designs being considered as new flags for Canada.
Donovan was an assistant purchasing director in government service. Upon getting a last-minute call from the Prime Minister’s Office to come up with some actual flags:
“He said: ‘Well, I’m going to call my daughter, Joan,’ ” his daughter recalls five decades later. ” ‘Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. Joan is going to sew the first Canadian flag.’ “
Despite not really wanting to go out again on a “dark and stormy night” to toil for hours at the task, Joan did just that.
Today, 50 years later, O’Malley, now a grandmother, admits that at the time she felt no great sense of accomplishment at what she’d done, no sense that she’d earned a mention in the history books.
“I didn’t think we were making history that night; now I see I was fortunate to be part of the birth of our flag. But at the time — I was told not to say anything because it was a secret — I thought, ‘Thank God that’s over, I’m tired.’”
O’Malley wasn’t paid for her work, unlike Betsy Ross, who received 14 pounds in 1777 to sew the first Stars and Stripes for George Washington. As far as O’Malley was concerned she was doing a favour for her dad.
Here’s a recent interview from CTV Ottawa news featuring O’Malley and the Singer sewing machine she used for the task.
According to other media accounts, Joan O’Malley doesn’t call herself Canada’s Betsy Ross, as she thinks the U.S. story may be mythical. But the longevity of things like the Betsy Ross legend speaks to a human fondness for nice stories about ordinary people playing a part in what goes on the be history.
Snopes.com has more about the Maple Leaf Flag in an entry debunking various imagined symbolic meaning.