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Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks during question period Wednesday, November 5, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec is poised to dramatically raise rates for its cherished public daycare system and put an end to the universal fees that saw rich and poor pay a flat $7.35 per day for a child's care.

A plan before cabinet would raise the fee to $8 a child per day for families with a net annual income less than $75,000, and up to $20 for those with a net income more than $200,000, according to a report in Le Devoir.

The amounts may seem modest to families in other parts of Canada who spend two to four times more than Quebec's highest proposed daily rate, but the move is a major shift in Quebec, where the universal fee seemed untouchable until recently. The move also arrives right after the NDP unveiled a national daycare proposal modelled on Quebec's system.

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The province launched a major cost-cutting review last spring. The government constantly leaks proposed cuts to gauge public reaction. Normally, government officials insist they've made no final decisions, but on Wednesday Premier Philippe Couillard appeared to confirm the hikes are coming.

"We want to ensure families who need a place find one, to ensure the plan can be preserved, and to ensure the plan is just and equitable for the entire population, according to income," Mr. Couillard said in the National Assembly.

Stéphane Bédard, the interim leader of the Parti Québécois, called the proposed hike "nothing more than a family tax. It's a full-frontal attack on the middle class." He also noted the Liberals campaigned against the PQ's proposed hike to $9 in last spring's election campaign.

The Liberal proposal amounts to a 9.5-per-cent hike at the low end and 174-per-cent at the highest threshold, where only a tiny percentage of Quebec families sit.

The median net income for a Quebec family with two income earners and two children was $81,700 in 2011, according to the Quebec's statistics institute. A family with one child sat at $71,380 and single parents earned $37,680.

This means more than half of Quebec parents are likely to avoid the sliding fee scale starting at $75,000 and pay the minimum hike of 9.5 per cent. The bulk of families above that threshold will see hikes in the 10- to 50-per-cent range.

Daycare operators rallied against the hike on Wednesday, arguing the system should be universal, like health care and school. "It would never cross our minds to say we will bill you according to your means when you use the emergency room, or when you send your child to school. Why would this be different?" said Gina Gasparini, chair of the board of the Quebec's association of early childhood education centres. She also runs a 120-place daycare.

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Quebec's subsidized and public daycare system was introduced by a Parti Québécois government in 1997. Rates were fixed at $5 a day for all families, and the system quickly became a sacred cow governments touched at their peril. Rates were hiked to $7 in 2004 and again last year to $7.35. Other proposed hikes have met with stiff resistance.

Critics of the system point out universal fees disproportionally benefit well-off Quebeckers, who use the system more than poor people. Well-off children show little extra benefit from being in the heavily subsidized system, studies have shown.

Studies show Quebec women have returned to work in greater numbers since the program was launched, and that poor children have benefited from the early education program. Incomes for single parents have also risen dramatically and an economic study showed the daycare cost is more than returned to government coffers in extra tax revenue.

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