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Ontario, Quebec justice ministers take swipe at federal counterpart MacKay

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OTTAWA - Two provincial justice ministers took a swipe at their federal counterpart Wednesday, denouncing Peter MacKay's recent comments about female judges as outdated and inaccurate.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, came to the defence of his embattled attorney general, as well as the Conservative government's record in promoting the advancement of women.

MacKay's views on professional men and women have faced scrutiny over the past week — most recently a pair of messages sent on Mother's Day and Father's Day that some felt stereotyped parental roles.

But the controversy began with a private meeting with members of the Ontario Bar Association earlier this month. The Toronto Star reported last week that MacKay attributed the dearth of women on the federal bench to the fact female candidates weren't applying.

He went on to explain that reticence by saying women feared being sent to work as judges on the circuit courts, the Star reported, quoting lawyers who were at the meeting.

MacKay has not denied the Star's characterization of the comments. In a Facebook post, he emphasized he has been trying to encourage the appointment of more women.

A pair of women who have risen to two of the most important legal positions in the country took issue with MacKay's comments.

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee called MacKay's comments "deplorable."

"It's now 2014 in Canada," Vallee said.

"We can be professional and have our families and have aspirations to access the bench... For my part, I have two teenagers and I travel back and forth between Maniwaki and Quebec each week.

"I think I'm a good mother and I think I'm a good professional."

At the Ontario legislature, Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur also took issue with the suggestion women weren't applying.

"It's very unfortunate that in 2014 you hear comments like this, especially from the minister of justice, especially at a time when Ontario has elected the first woman as premier in Ontario," Meilleur said.

"It's difficult for the female community in Ontario to accept a comment like this."

Meilleur went on to suggest that MacKay should take note of Ontario's transparent process for appointing judges, which deliberately seeks out more diversity on the bench.

MacKay's Mother's Day and Father's Day emails, obtained by The Canadian Press, have added to the discussion about the minister's view of gender roles.

In one, MacKay salutes moms for juggling two full-time jobs — home and work.

"By the time many of you have arrived at the office in the morning, you've already changed diapers, packed lunches, run after school buses, dropped kids off at the daycare, taken care of an aging loved one and maybe even thought about dinner," he wrote.

The Father's Day message was quite different, making no mention of any household duties, but saying the men were "shaping the minds and futures of the next generation of leaders."

MacKay's office would not comment on the substance of the emails. A government source who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was bureaucrats who penned most of the Mother's Day message, with minor tweaks by MacKay.

One of his staff members currently on maternity leave, Jenn Gearey, called the email issue "ridiculous" and pointed out that some of MacKay's most senior staff are women.

The messages both made a personal reference to MacKay being a father — something he also did in front of the Ontario lawyers when he said women had a special bond with their children.

When asked about the messages during an event in Quebec, Harper said he didn't agree with the interpretation they were sexist.

"The clear objective of my government since our arrival in power has been to increase the participation of women in leadership positions, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector," Harper told a joint news conference with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

Still, women in Harper's cabinet have not been able to penetrate the top posts.

The Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice portfolios have remained in the hands of men for eight years. In the House of Commons, male ministers such as Jason Kenney and John Baird are most commonly called upon to speak on Harper's behalf in his absence.

— With files from Maria Babbage in Toronto

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