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N.S. government’s $5M contribution to Sandpiper Ventures sparks backlash

Advocates say money is not going where women need it

4 min read
caption Photo illustration of two women shaking hands. Women-led Sandpiper Ventures received a $5-million contribution from the Nova Scotia government last Friday.
Natalie MacMillan

The Nova Scotia government announced a $5-million contribution to Sandpiper Ventures last Friday, and was met with controversy online including some saying the grant is not addressing the pandemic’s effect on women.

With this announcement, Premier Stephen McNeil cited women being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for the contribution—something that advocates have taken issue with.

Sandpiper Ventures is an all-women investment firm, which aims to invest in early-stage women tech entrepreneurs. It relies on investments from private investors as well as organizations.

Women in the pandemic

Christine Saulnier is the Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. If the problem is women struggling disproportionately during the pandemic, Saulnier said she doesn’t think the money is going towards an evidence-based solution.

“We are still under an emergency response. We are in a pandemic…this should be the number one concern for your government,” said Saulnier.

Women, especially working mothers, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics Canada reported in December that the pandemic-time activity of homeschooling children fell mostly on mothers, with 64 per cent of mothers surveyed indicating that they were primarily in charge of their children’s education.

Additionally, they reported that women do the majority of “parenting tasks” while in lockdown or quarantine during the pandemic. With this, it is harder for women to return to work without affordable child care.

A study out of the University of British Columbia found that mothers’ employment was “hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than that of fathers, widening the gender employment gap among parents.”

“On the one side, I think it’s positive that our premier finally recognized that there is a gender impact to what’s happened,” said Saulnier.

But, Saulnier said she’s unsure why the premier has used the pandemic as a reason to make the contribution.

“This is not in any of the recovery plans that I have read…I’m just kind of gobsmacked by the decision to do this,” Saulnier said.

Affordable child care

Child care is something that Saulnier said should be top of mind for the Nova Scotia government.

“Any recovery plan that thinks about the impact that the pandemic has had on women would look to child care as being a critical investment going forward,” she said.

“This does not address any of what’s happening in the pandemic that impacted women, which is what he said he was going to do.”

The province said they are focused on the impact that they believe the contribution will have.

In a written statement, Gary Andrea, spokesperson for the business department, said that “Sandpiper will use the funds to leverage other investment and then use the fund to enable women to turn their ideas into successful enterprises.

“This venture fund will help further develop Nova Scotia’s innovation driven entrepreneurial ecosystem and create employment opportunities by women who are pursuing their goals in business.”

Claudia Chender is the MLA for Dartmouth South and House leader for the Nova Scotia NDP. She first heard about Sandpiper back in November, where she pushed to get an answer on how their investments in private sector, businesses and startups actually benefited the Nova Scotia economy.

Chender is also “off put” by the framing of the announcement being to help women recover from the pandemic.

She said the idea that the contribution to Sandpiper would do anything to address the differential impact of the pandemic on women is “absurd.”

“I think what was insulting really to me about the announcement was the idea that this was somehow a bold move towards gender equity and helping women and recovering from the pandemic,” said Chender.

“Because it is not that.”

Chender also mentioned affordable child care. She said she has been pushing for it in Nova Scotia for years, but due to COVID, it’s something that has become more important.

Sandpiper’s response

Rhiannon Davies, managing partner and founder of Sandpiper Ventures, said Sandpiper was born out of a gap in the market. She said this money is going to be used towards 10 to 15 investments in women-led tech startups.

She said we need to start putting capital behind concepts and ideas that are intersectional and helpful to all, not just a small group of “homogenous” entrepreneurs.

Davies acknowledged the validity in the argument against the contribution and for affordable child care instead, and said that these comments are “extremely legitimate, quite frankly.”

However, she thinks that the argument about child care reduces women’s opportunities to get funding like this.

“Let’s not look at this, and because it’s considered a woman’s pot…divide that woman’s pot among women, venture capitalists and child care,” said Davies.

Saulnier disagreed, and said that “there is but one pot of money…called taxpayer money. You absolutely cannot separate those two things out.”

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  1. J

    Jane Wentzell

    I wonder if non tech startups have any place In this venture capital grant.
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