Ron Derrickson saw Ukraine as a massive economic opportunity after he set foot in the country for the first time more than 20 years ago.
His initial visit to the Eastern Europe country was to be a friend’s best man at his wedding.
But that visit turned into the start of a whirlwind business adventure for the controversial former Westbank First Nation chief that came to a halt due to government corruption and the current Russia-Ukraine war.
“I was there initially for my friend Darryl’s wedding, but after he got married and went on his honeymoon, I was there wondering what to do next for the rest of my holiday, ” Derrickson recalled.
But his entrepreneurial mindset began to recognize business potential.
“It was like a great big, massive Indian reserve free for all out there. There were business opportunities everywhere.”
Derrickson has written his third book about his experience in Ukraine, titled Ukrainian Scorpions: A Tale of Larceny and Greed.
The book tells not only the story of his personal battles in political and diplomatic spheres, including a run-in with automatic weapon-toting mercenaries but also the wider struggle of Ukraine to find its footing and shake off the corruption that has plagued the nation since gaining its independence from Russia in the 1990s.
Derrickson writes about watching the invasion of Ukraine with a kind of anguish, a country that has been shut out of the European economic union for three decades and is now being asked to ward off an invasion by Russia without any military manpower support, an over-matched country in a fight for its very existence.
“What the Russians are doing to the people of Ukraine is criminal, and Putin is a war criminal,” said Derrickson.
“It is absolutely genocide that is going on there right now.”
With his own Indigenous background, Derrickson said he has empathy for what Ukrainians are facing from the Russian military backlash.
“The Ukraine people are basically good, kind, happy people, normal everyday people and I love them,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there was corruption in government at all levels. It is a beautiful country you know, great people. It’s just too bad there have been criminals who run it. “
Derrickson said his initial business foray was in buying apartments, then upgrading and selling them. His real estate business led him into agriculture investment, buying and leasing farmland.
He stepped up his agriculture business interests by importing the latest grain sorting equipment from Canada and a facility to house it, which put him on the radar of government tax collectors and Ukrainian oligarchs.
“They just slowly bleed you to death until you are done and they then take over your business, falsify documents and put you into bankruptcy,” Derrickson recalled.
“It’s too bad because if Ukraine had joined NATO early on, the system of justice and government in the country would have been more proper. There is only one way to run a government and that is honestly.”
Derrickson has since relocated to Poland, seeing the potential there he saw decades ago in Ukraine.
“Poland is one of the most developed and prosperous countries in Europe right now, while Ukraine is now one of the poorest. Poland is stable right now,” he said, noting he and business partners have spent thousands of dollars helping get people out of the country to evade persecution.
“Everywhere you go in Poland, you find Ukrainian people working in stores. But I think it’s a fair assessment that those people would go back to Ukraine.
“They are so homesick for Ukraine, but I know they can’t do that right now while the war is going on.”
While often travelling abroad, Derrickson says returning to Kelowna always renews his appreciation for what we have here.
“People who complain here and live off the government should be ashamed of themselves. We have got everything we need in this country.”
While his business pursuits have led to a fascinating life for Derrickson, at the age of 82 he has no interest in slowing down.
Born on the Westbank Indian Reserve in 1941, as a young man Derrickson worked as a fruit picker, welder and rancher before being elected the band chief in 1976.
Over the next decade, he led his band through a period of rapid economic development, taking it from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest in B.C.
During his period of band leadership, Derrickson broke new ground by leading his band into a logging venture on their Aboriginal title lands with an Indigenous rather than a provincial permit, an action that led to similar logging initiatives among B.C. Indigenous peoples.
The federal government launched an enquiry into Derrickson’s tenure as chief in the form of the Hall Commission in 1986. The enquiry cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Writing books has been a new venture that Derrickson has found satisfying, saying he loves the process of taking a literary premise and following it through to completion.
His previous books Unsettling Canada: A Nation Wake-Up Call won the Aboriginal prize of the Canadian History Association in 2016, and Reconciliation Manifesto won the B.C. Book Prize for non-fiction in 2018.
He is already well into developing his next book, which will talk about his life history as a negotiator.
“I’m still working…I don’t know anything else to do,” he laughed.
“I have had an interesting life. I tell my kids if I die tomorrow, don’t cry. I have had a great life…I did it all.”