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Justice Minister Peter MacKay addresses a news in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. The Conservative government has introduced legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Justice Minister Peter MacKay, on the defensive after leaked Mother's Day and Father's Day e-mails to staff showed that he stressed care giving for mothers and leadership of the young for fathers, issued a public statement saying he was simply trying to be a thoughtful employer.

The controversy follows on the heels of statements Mr. MacKay made at a private meeting this month with an Ontario lawyers group, at which participants quote him as saying women aren't applying for the judiciary in large numbers because they have a special bond with their young children.

It also follows several months in which nearly everything else that could go wrong for Mr. MacKay has – from the unprecedented rejection of the Conservative government's appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada, to laws being struck down, to lower-court judges rebelling openly against a law intended to support victim services. Even Mr. MacKay's much-anticipated victim rights bill fell somewhat flat with its intended audience.

"It's been a terrible year," University of Calgary law professor Kathleen Mahoney said in an interview. "I don't know if it's a cavalier attitude to his role or he's too partisan. It's just one thing after another. It makes one wonder what kind of thought process he brings to the things he says and does."

Mr. MacKay's Mother's Day message to Justice Department staff, in recognizing those who hold "two full-time jobs" as colleagues and as mothers and caregivers, said that by the time many of them reach the office, they have "already changed diapers, packed lunches, run after school buses, dropped kids off at daycare, taken care of an aging loved one and maybe even thought about dinner."

By contrast, the Father's Day message spoke of "dedicated fathers, shaping the minds and futures of the next generation of leaders." In both the Mother's and Father's Day messages, and in his meeting with the Ontario lawyers, he cited what he'd learned from his own experience as the married father of a toddler.

Paloma Aguilar, a spokesperson for Mr. MacKay, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that the minister's comments were meant to show his gratitude. "As he has consistently done since his appointment to Cabinet and in his capacities as Minister of Foreign Affairs, DND and now Justice, the Minister takes every opportunity to thank his employees for their hard work. His messages on the occasions of Mother's Day and Father's Day were a recognition of the incredible efforts all parents make each and every day to balance work and family commitments and ensure the well-being of their children."

A government source said Mr. MacKay tweaked the Mother's Day message, which was written by departmental staff, to include caring for aging loved ones and inserting "maybe even" before thinking about dinner. The Mother's Day message from last year paid tribute to mothers for "shaping our lives and society," according to a document sent by that source.

Prof. Mahoney said Mr. MacKay's choice of words offers a "glimpse into his thinking, obviously, and his thinking indicates he differentiates between appropriate roles for women and men, which in this day and age is pretty old-school. His role as Justice Minister is a special role that's different from the other cabinet ministers. He is supposed to be a step back from politics and the steward of the legal system. The legal system requires that all Canadians are equal."

In an official capacity, Prof. Mahoney said, Mr. MacKay should not be saying that "this is what women do and this is what men do."

It was the second week in a row Mr. MacKay has defended his views on the sexes, and Ms. Aguilar repeated a statement he made on Facebook last week: "Each family embraces their personal responsibilities and the challenges in their own way and I respect that. Again, this reflects the fabric that is our country and that is something we all value and share."