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Canada's Justice Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 3, 2014.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Opposition members are calling Justice Minister Peter MacKay a throwback to television characters from the 1950s because he told a lawyers' group that women are not applying in large numbers to become judges because they have a special bond with their young children.

Mr. MacKay said his remarks were mischaracterized, and that he wants more women to apply, but several lawyers who heard the comments at an Ontario Bar Association council meeting last Friday said the more important issue is the near-absence of visible minorities being appointed to the federal judiciary by the Conservative government – and Mr. MacKay's insistence that they simply are not applying.

In the past five and a half years, Ottawa appointed just a handful of non-white judges out of the nearly 200 first-time justices it has named to the bench.

Arlene Huggins, president of the 300-member Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, said she asked Mr. MacKay at the meeting what is being done, or could be, to address the lack of diversity on the bench. He replied that women and minorities are not applying, then added that women are concerned the male judges who dominate the courts would assign them to a judicial circuit, meaning they would have to travel in their region. Citing his wife's bond with their child, he said it is difficult for women to leave that bond behind, according to people who attended the quarterly meeting.

Ms. Huggins said Mr. MacKay is "blaming the victim" by saying visible minorities do not apply: "Let him release the data." She and others said they have been told people in minority communities are applying. She said Mr. MacKay did not address her question about what is being done or could be done to make the bench reflect society better.

"If you aren't tracking it, it's very difficult to identify an issue and how to make it better," said Esi Codjoe, a Toronto lawyer.

The Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs does not keep track of the numbers of visible minorities appointed. When asked why not, a spokesman said it would need to be directed to do so by the justice minister.

But the office does track the number of female judges: 382 out of 1,120 – 34 per cent – on federally appointed courts such as provincial superior and appeal courts, the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada.

In the past five and a half years, only a few of the nearly 200 first-time justices Ottawa appointed were not white, according to research by University of Ottawa law professor Rosemary Cairns Way (who studied the past two years) and separately by The Globe and Mail (which looked at the previous three and a half years). At the provincial court level in Ontario, about 11 per cent of a sample of 138 judges were visible minorities, while 15 per cent of lawyers are visible minorities, according to research by Ryerson University.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, opposition MPs likened Mr. MacKay to the paternal characters in the TV shows Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best.

Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, who has young children, asked Mr. MacKay whether MPs who are mothers "should stay at home because of our special maternal bond with our young children?"

Mr. MacKay replied that her comments were a "complete mischaracterization of what I said, what I think, how I act and who I am." He said his government had appointed a female chief justice of Quebec, and named the first Haitian-Canadian female judge to a Quebec court. He added that only merit and excellence matter for judicial appointments.

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