The Justice Department announced 13 new judicial appointments last week. Twelve of them were men — and the lone woman represented a promotion to a higher court, not a new face in the pool of judges.
The appointments came as controversy dogged Justice Minister Peter MacKay over a Toronto Star report about comments he reportedly made to a group of Ontario lawyers about women failing to apply to become judges.
On Friday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to strip MacKay of his Justice portfolio.
"It would be really appropriate for the prime minister to come up with somebody else for the job," Mulcair said in an interview.
"Equality between men and women should be something the justice minister should be defending, and I really think Harper's got no choice but to consider removing him."
The issue goes beyond MacKay, said one legal expert.
Linda Robertson, who chairs the women lawyers forum for the Canadian Bar Association in B.C., said the prospects for female judges have diminished under the Conservatives as the pace of women's appointments has slackened.
"The frustration that we have is that under the Liberal government, they were making very healthy female appointments; it wasn't a problem under the Liberals," Robertson said from Vancouver.
"It's only been since the Conservatives came in that the number of female appointments have slowed down. They haven't stopped, but they've sure slowed down."
MacKay's department begs to differ, saying 34 per cent of sitting judges are now women, up from 29 per cent when the Tories came to power. There are currently 383 women on a bench of 1,120 federally appointed judges.
The head of the association, however, made note of the enduring lack of diversity among judges in a speech Friday to the organization's constitutional and human rights conference in Ottawa.
"Our courts at all levels have yet to reflect the gender balance and diversity of Canadian society," Fred Headon said.
"We need hard information so we can gauge where we're at and what progress we are making or not making. We need to see where the bottlenecks are so we can identify them and remove them."
Better data is critical, Robertson noted.
"We want the federal government to start simply reporting annually the number of men and women that apply across the country," she said.
"For years they have been telling us that they would promote more women, but they just aren't getting the applicants. But because it's so opaque, we don't know if that's even true."
Robertson said women make up only 37 per cent of the legal profession in Canada, meaning there is a much smaller pool of female applicants. Nonetheless, she said, judicial appointments under the Tories have been disproportionately going to men.
The lack of women in the judicial system came under a spotlight after the Star reported that MacKay rankled a group of Ontario lawyers during a private meeting when he said women weren't applying for judgeships.
The Star, quoting lawyers who were at the meeting, said MacKay attributed the dearth of women on the bench to a lack of applications, He reportedly went on to link that to a fear among women that they might be appointed to a circuit court, which entails more travel.
He is also reported as saying during the same meeting that women have a special bond with their children.