1868 An inconvenient tale of Ukraine
Ukrainian Scorpions: A Tale of Larceny and Greed
by Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson
Toronto: ECW Press, 2023
$28.95 / 9781770415676
Reviewed by Larry Hannant
Their proxy war in Ukraine against Russia floundering, the Western War Heads have been able to retain their mastery only on one crucial front line – propaganda. At least in the world’s forty-odd Dollar Dependencies the grim war being fought to the last Ukrainian commands unabashed admiration in the mainstream media and among the opinion-shaping commentariat.
The dominant narrative on Ukraine we hear regularly repeated goes like this. Since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has strived to throw off the burden of the anti-business Soviet system, which was run by the political and personal agendas of Communist Party bosses. It’s been a constant struggle to implement reforms. With the 2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelensky on an anti-corruption platform, the plucky democracy has embarked on a path of change for the better, shaking off economic subservience to Russia and uprooting entrenched corruption. The goal is to join the European community by adopting the highest Western political, financial and judicial norms.
Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson’s Ukrainian Scorpions dissects that fabled narrative and reveals it to be as dodgy as The Donald’s tax returns. His compelling personal account of being swindled out of a $28 million investment in Ukraine by crooks, court officials, police and Ukrainian parliamentarians is a must-read for Canadians, whose government continues to pour billions of dollars into the country, ostensibly to defend infant capitalism and democracy.
Derrickson is one of Canada’s most successful Indigenous entrepreneurs. First elected Chief of Westbank First Nation in 1976, he used a combination of personal charisma, ambition and financial acumen to help make it one of the wealthiest bands in the country. Based in the central Okanagan adjacent to Kelowna, the 900 Westbank people have established a business empire that includes commercial and residential development and logging. Along the way, Derrickson has done pretty well for himself, benefiting in part from the fact that individual band members can acquire community land. His RMD Group operates over 30 businesses and properties in the Okanagan and is valued at well over $100 million. He’s also a writer, co-authoring Unsettling Canada and Reconciliation Manifesto with Arthur Manuel and writing a memoir, Fight or Submit.
How did an Indigenous entrepreneur based in BC end up investing $28 million in Ukraine? And, despite plenty of business savvy, lose it all? In an entertaining and shocking personal chronicle, Derrickson candidly lays out his undoing at the hands of various scoundrels in a country that, according to one of the few uncorrupted national bank members, is marked by “complete lawlessness.”(151)
The misadventure began innocently enough. In 2000 a business associate in Kelowna asked him to be the best man at his wedding. There was a hitch: “The wedding is in Kyiv.” Derrickson had to ask him where that was. And the response – Ukraine – didn’t geolocate him much more exactly.
But disenchanted with Indigenous politics, fed up with conflicts over logging with the BC government, and angered by death threats “from local rednecks,” the bon vivant didn’t hesitate long in booking his flight. Never shy about throwing himself into an adventure, Derrickson had been a champion speedboat racer, had amassed a real estate empire in the province’s interior, and had survived an assassination attempt by a hired thug. In short, he was well prepared for whatever Ukraine might throw at him. Or at least he thought he was.
On his first visit he developed a sincere affection for the Ukrainian people. In their dire poverty – well below the standards of neighbouring Poland and Russia – he recognized a similarity to Indigenous people in Canada. And business opportunities abounded. Capital investment was desperately needed, and by 2006 Derrickson had taken a step into the type of operation he thought he understood. Working with Ukrainian partners, he bought 8000 hectares of farmland, imported up-to-date Canadian farm equipment and built a grain processing facility in the southern part of the country.
The town’s name and people accurately capture Ukraine’s political and social schisms. From 1939 to 2016 it was Shchorsk, named after a Ukrainian communist killed in the 1919 conflict between left and right in Ukraine. In 2016 it was renamed Bozhedarivka, to comply with Ukraine’s law prohibiting names of communist origin. Canada might tolerate a Communist Party, but Ukraine was having none of that liberal nonsense. And in the town, Derrickson was dismayed by the sight of the woman who operated a tiny store. Smiling at his compliment about her beautiful children, she revealed rotten front teeth. Derrickson resolved to establish a dental clinic and a childcare centre.
For a time, things went well, it seemed. Monitoring the operation from his office in BC, Derrickson heard news that the grain processing equipment had arrived and was set up. The dental clinic and childcare centre were working well. He was disturbed by the difficulty his Ukrainian business partners had in coming up with their portion of the capital investment, but he threw more cash in to raise what was needed.
As his misgivings grew, the fraud unfolded, and in three years he was stripped bare. In secret, his business partners had met, sold the company, illegally affixing his name to the deal. After several rounds of shell-game sales, the entire business ended up in the hands of a Ukrainian parliamentarian, who then put up the operation for sale on the Polish market. Derrickson doggedly fought back, but after a decade of futile appeals to police, courts, and even the Canadian government, he had to admit defeat.
If he could take any consolation, it was that he wasn’t unique in being shamelessly scammed. He learned that “these types of legal raids were so common in Ukraine that there were actually mafia-affiliated lawyers who specialized in them. … From the shoot-’em-up street gangs of the 1990s, Ukraine had evolved into a sophisticated criminal enterprise.” (88-9)
Violence wasn’t entirely absent, of course. At one point in the cutthroat process, Derrickson ran into – and even tried himself – blatant thuggery. His former business partners hired a gang carrying AK-47s to take possession of the grain processing plant. Derrickson was stymied, but a friendly Ukrainian-Canadian businessman suggested using Ukrainian methods – hire more thugs with bigger guns. He contracted his own small-scale army to retake the facility. It worked, for a time. Then his army upped the ante, delivering him an ultimatum that he come up with $1million so they wouldn’t desert and return the plant to the previous occupiers. He balked at succumbing to such blatant intimidation and lost the plant again.
The scale of the weaponry available not just to oligarchs, but even to what Ukrainians call “mini-garchs,” should raise a giant blue and yellow warning flag to the Western War Heads dumping the latest killing technology into Ukraine. Derrickson points out the dangers – not just to Ukraine but more broadly to the world – of arming a country where private armies already run roughshod over the people. He cites the estimate of the director of a Lithuanian agency responsible for shipping Western military supplies across the border to Ukraine that 70 percent of it disappears into the web of “power lords, oligarchs and political players.” (195) Interpol chief Jürgen Stock also warns that criminals are acquiring arms sent to Ukraine. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/02/ukraine-weapons-end-up-criminal-hands-says-interpol-chief-jurgen-stock)
Derrickson has a novelist’s eye for insightful detail and a shrewd take on personalities. He notes, for instance, the behaviour of judges he observed during the innumerable court appearances he sat through in a failed legal quest for restitution. They paid scant attention to his lawyers’ interventions and ignored the paperwork arrayed before them, which was invariably fake. His Ukrainian-Canadian business advisor laid it out directly, saying “judges wait for the local crime boss to tell them what to do. Or the more independent ones will wait to see who will make them the best financial offer before deciding which side to take.” (111) In Derrickson’s case, the weight of Ukrainian crooks allied to members of parliament combined to nullify his legal quest for justice.
Chapter 19, The Canadian Card, lays out a 30-year-long history of Canada’s collaboration with independent Ukraine, the pattern described in a devastating chapter subhead: “Canada continues to write blank cheques to the gangster state.” (155) Derrickson contends that Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world where one can successfully play the Canadian card. But when he tried to play that card he was utterly shut down. Noting how lavishly Canada has showered Ukraine with economic and military assistance since first recognizing the state in 1991, Derrickson drew up in 2017 a detailed dossier of how he was swindled and asked the Canadian ambassador in Kyiv for assistance. For a brief time, he reports, embassy staff did show an interest, but after two years it was clear they “had not moved the issue up the political ladder.” (166) Playing his “Canadian card” in Kyiv won Derrickson nothing. Business as usual prevailed, based on corrupt practices prevalent in Ukraine, not on Canada’s supposed high standards.
In fact, playing the Ukrainian card in Canada is more likely to get results. With the third largest population of Ukrainians in the world, this country is shifting politically under the influence of a growing diaspora and its hard-right agenda. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, says Derrickson, was “almost obsessive” in its determination to cozy up to Ukraine. Harper himself visited Ukraine three times in 2014, opening the floodgates of financial, political and military aid.
But Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are also wedded to what’s rapidly becoming a failed state, with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in the forefront of the effort to shower assistance on it. The inconvenient fact that Freeland’s Ukrainian grandfather, Michael Chomiak, edited an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi newspaper in German-occupied eastern Europe during the Second World War caused a small stir in 2017, but it was shouted down as “Russian disinformation.” Indeed, Canada expelled two Russian diplomats for tweeting details about Chomiak that had been well established in academic research two decades before. In a telling phrase, Derrickson calls the attempted whitewash of Chomiak’s pro-Nazi past “a rather typical example of Canada’s serial dishonesty when it comes to Ukraine.” (158)
A recent incident on the streets of Victoria gave me a striking personal example of the influence of Ukrainian politics in this country. I was putting up posters for a presentation by former Green Party of Canada leadership candidate Dimitri Lascaris, which he entitled Making Peace with Russia, One Handshake at a Time. In April, Lascaris undertook a self-financed tour of Russia on what he called a citizen’s peace initiative. In Victoria, he was talking about what he’d seen there, one of 13 stops on a cross-Canada trek.
I’d put up the poster on a telephone pole alongside ads for psychic dentistry, cat-walkers, and personal coaches. I was twenty paces away when a young woman and man walked over to the pole and ripped down the poster. I demanded why they’d got it into their heads that they could deprive people of the right to know about the event. It turned out they were recent immigrants from Ukraine and they were fiercely opposed to any suggestion of making peace with Russia. Lascaris’s message promoting negotiation to end the war was intolerable. No one should hear it.
We argued around various aspects of the issue without conclusion, but I made one final request of them as newcomers to Canada. Could they at least act democratically and not suppress information about events that dared to take alternative points of view? When they walked away, I was left with no sense of confidence that they would respect my request.
Reading Ukrainian Scorpions, I recognized how one of Russia’s stated goals for its military assault – de-Nazifying Ukraine – was affecting Canada politically. Since 2022 millions of Ukrainians have fled abroad. Canada alone has received almost one million applications under special legislation permitting emergency travel here, and over 650,000 have been approved. They’re not all Nazis, of course. But as the war drags on, the chance of Ukrainians exerting a far-right influence on domestic politics here grows.
It wouldn’t be the first time. As Kassandra Luciuk reveals in a recent academic article, after the Second World War Ukrainian Nazi collaborators were brought to Canada to serve on the front line of the battle to undermine communist influence in the country. (See Kassandra Luciuk, ‘“They Will Crack Heads when the Communist Line is Expounded’: Anti-Communist Violence in Cold War Canada,” Labour/Le Travail 90, Fall 2022.)
For the moment, Justin Trudeau’s “Ready Aye Ready” fealty to NATO’s relentless arming of Ukraine has widespread public and media support. But what if the Liberals – who occasionally in the past have donned and benefited from an anti-war mask – decide that fiscal prudence or simple good sense suggest a “Just Say No to War” approach? For that matter, what alternative options are there for other political parties, all of whom appear to be locked into NATO’s unrelenting dumping of weapons into a fiery cauldron? Any mainstream politician who dared to contradict the pro-war agenda would soon face intense vitriol. Venues at which Dimitri Lascaris was scheduled to speak have been deluged with calls by Ukrainian Canadians and their supporters to bar him. In June, fearing for their building and the safety of their staff, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union in Toronto did reverse its commitment to rent the venue for Lascaris’s presentation.
Derrickson brings the narrative up to the present, expressing total support for the 2014 unseating of the elected government of Victor Yanukovych and condemning Russia’s 2022 military invasion. But he sees no change in the government of Volodymyr Zelensky. The Pandora Papers’ release of secret tax data and banking information in 2021 included details showing that Zelensky had “a slew of secret investments in partnership with his cronies from his native Kryvyi Rih [central Ukraine] region.” The “reform president” was in league with oligarchs, including the disgraced Igor Kolomoisky.
Ukrainian Scorpions is a damning refutation of the West’s official line about Ukraine and, by extension, the merit of the proxy war that’s being waged over it. Every Canadian should read Derrickson’s frank account of how Canada and the West have “become prime enablers of the Ukrainian mafia.” (128) Arming a state that is criminal to its very core threatens not just the beleaguered people of Ukraine, but also the security of people far beyond.
Larry Hannant is the author of All My Politics Are Poetry (Victoria: Yalla Press, 2019, reviewed here by Natalie Lang). His most recent book is an edited collection titled Bucking Conservatism: Alternative Stories of Alberta in the 1960s and 1970s (Athabasca University Press, 2021). Hannant taught aspects of human rights history for years at BC universities and colleges and is engaged in writing an anti-imperialist history of human rights. Editor’s note: Larry Hannant has recently reviewed books by David Spaner, Pitman Potter, Suchetana Chattopadhyay, Eve Lazarus, Christabelle Sethna & Steve Hewitt, and Kate Bird for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed three essays, ChatGPT and me, I’m not your man: Norman Bethune & women, and Letter from Victoria. He lives in Victoria.*
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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