Canada has regressed in the past five decades and there is now a greater divide between the rich and poor, says former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

He told the 56th Canadian Conference of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Toronto that instead of people becoming more equal, precisely the opposite has happened.

“Instead of moving forwards we’re moving backwards.”

Broadbent was one of the speakers at the Aug. 25 session of the conference. He is chair of the Broadbent Institute, a non-partisan organization exploring social democratic policies and ideas.

In the late 1950s, he said, there were plenty of jobs and trade unions were flourishing, and in the 1970s laws were adopted that provided new freedoms to women, gays and ethnic minorities.

But today, he said, affordable housing is no longer available to thousands of families across the country, most workers have no private pensions, students graduate with an average debt of $25,000, and child poverty has become a serious issue.

Canada also used to be admired for its vigorous debate and civil liberties, he said, but the government of Stephen Harper has trampled on the rights of the country’s workers.

“Not in over 60 years has Canadian government worked so hard to undermine the rights of the trade union movement. It’s been right wing ideology of the most intolerant kind that has shattered Canada’s reputation.”

Broadbent said a “rich minority” has also emerged that pays a smaller portion of the tax burden than they did a decade ago.

He said the Liberal government slashed federal programs in the 1990s and Harper’s Conservatives later brought in tax cuts that favoured the rich.

“It was Robin Hood in reverse,” he said, noting that under Harper “rich Canadians have never had it so good.”

He said Canadians need to put an end to the fundamentalist way of thinking and create a more balanced approach.

With a federal election looming in 2015, he said, there is no better time.

“Canadians are now open to change and they want a federal government that leads.

“They want a fair share of income.”

Broadbent said there is no better way to address that inequality than strengthening trade unions.

“Trade unions in Canada are good for everyone and we must get that message out,” he said to resounding applause. “Workers’ rights are human rights.”

Local 793 business manager Mike Gallagher said Broadbent’s message might sound bleak but it’s one that unions should take to heart.

He noted that it’s nice to have a sane voice amidst all the other right-wing think tanks that are out there spewing their messages.