08/01/2014 01:04 EDT | Updated 10/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Peter MacKay skipping Canadian Bar Association's annual conference

For as long as anyone at the Canadian Bar Association can remember, Canada's justice minister has attended the group's annual legal conference.

Not this year.

In a year when the government has faced off with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and current and former heads of the CBA have called the prime minister's actions into question, Justice Minister Peter MacKay will miss the group's annual get-together Aug. 15 to 17 in St. John's.

MacKay's spokeswoman said the invitation to attend the Canadian Legal Conference arrived in June, when the minister's summer travel was already planned, resulting in a "scheduling conflict."

"The minister has professional working relationships with his various stakeholders, including the CBA, and will pursue these relationships for the benefit of Canadians and strengthening Canada’s already robust criminal justice system," said Mary Anne Dewey-Plante in an email to CBC News.

MacKay attended the event last year.

"He's advised us that it's a scheduling conflict. I have no reason to question that. It's unfortunate," said CBA president Fred Headon.

In May, Headon called the prime minister's clash with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin "disturbing." In comments on Twitter, Headon said he hoped the disagreement was a misunderstanding and urged the prime minister to clarify that McLachlin acted appropriately.


Eleven former presidents of the CBA also signed an open letter saying Harper's action demonstrated "a disrespect" for the judicial branch of democracy.

In June, the CBA weighed in on another controversy.

MacKay was at a meeting of the Ontario Bar Association when he was asked by a group of lawyers about the challenges of getting more diversity on the bench. MacKay reportedly responded that women aren't applying to be judges for fear that circuit-court jobs would take them away from their children.

Once again, the CBA raised questions.

"We need to wonder whether there is a basis in reality for MacKay's assertions as to why there are fewer female judges," Headon said in an interview with the CBC News at the time.

MacKay later said in a Facebook post that he never made the comments in question.

'Breaking point'

In June, another former CBA president, Simon Potter, told a CBA conference in Ottawa that Harper was "pushing the system to its breaking point."

Headon wouldn't tie any of those remarks to MacKay's decision to not to attend next month's gathering.

"I have no evidence of a chill and I certainly would hope it's not taken that way," he said.

"It's a long-standing relationship. I hope that that will be taken into account by those that might be looking at our comments and understand that we are trying to play that constructive role that we've played in the past."

The CBA says it invited MacKay in June to the St. John's event, and received word  "a couple of weeks ago" that he would not be attending.

The CBA represents some 37,000 judges, lawyers, notaries, law teachers and law students.