POLITICS

Snowbirds, including first flag seamstress, party in Florida for 50th birthday

02/12/2015 04:15 EST | Updated 04/13/2015 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Five decades ago, a young Joan O'Malley was summoned by her father one snowy November night to sew Canada's first Maple Leaf flag.

On the flag's 50th birthday this Sunday, she'll be celebrating with as many as 900 other snowbirds at a party in Panama City Beach, Fla., where she'll most certainly be the belle of the ball given her direct participation in Canadian history.

"Every time I look at it, I can see myself sewing it that night," O'Malley, now 70, recalled in a recent interview from her winter home in Florida.

"I remember thinking it was beautiful, and wondering: 'Why shouldn't Canada have its own flag?' The maple leaf was a symbol all Canadians recognized, and that flag was stunning, as far as I was concerned. I loved it."

O'Malley's father, Ken Donovan, was an assistant purchasing director with the Canadian Government Exhibition Commission in 1964. He called his daughter that night in November with an urgent request.

That afternoon, Lester B. Pearson had asked that the three flag prototypes under consideration be delivered to 24 Sussex Drive so he could see them hoisted on poles at the prime minister's Harrington Lake retreat the next day.

O'Malley took to her Singer sewing machine at her father's call. Her favourite flag, however, was the now-iconic red-and-white emblem.

Her instincts were sharp.

Pearson's personal favourite, a triple maple leaf bordered by blue bars dubbed the Pearson Pennant, ultimately lost out to the red Maple Leaf. Parliamentarians, including Conservatives, voted in favour of the new flag, and on Feb. 15, 1965, it was raised on Parliament Hill as Tory opposition leader John Diefenbaker wiped away tears.

Fifty years later and O'Malley is in a far warmer climate looking forward to her community's annual flag day gala that's taken on special significance this year.

"It's really breathtaking when you walk in, because everyone is wearing red and white. I come in with the Canadian flag and then all the provincial flags come in — it is just beautiful ceremony to see," she said.

A song commemorating the 50th birthday, penned by songwriter and schoolteacher Stephen Bergen of Kitchener, Ont., will be played at the party.

It's called Canadian Flag Waver and features Bergen singing with a 29-member children's choir.

As for O'Malley? She'll be at Table No. 50 — at her request.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25