Penticton’s Philosopher’s Café marks a decade

Living Portrait Series continues April 15 at Dream Café in Penticton

Ten years is a long time with that much food for thought.

Penticton Philosopher’s Café marks a decade of fostering discussions between the community and people with interesting lives and experiences as it continues its Living Portrait Series April 15.

Organizer Brian Hughes said he is not surprised the quarterly event has lasted so long, given Penticton’s propensity for lively debate.

“This town, it likes this kind of stuff. There’s a dedicated following that come,” he said, noting the one-hour interview is followed by questions from the crowd. “It’s very lively. The dialogue is great. It gets back to some core part of our being. We love the storyteller. In day-to-day life, you don’t get a chance to hear this quite so often. It’s fun.”

The program began in 2002, when Hughes had been speaking with friend Ajhan Sona, a Buddhist monk from the Birken Forest Monastery who had just participated in a philosophical discussion hosted by Simon Fraser University. Sona asked if Hughes would consider establishing something similar locally.

They haven’t looked back since. Hughes has brought big names in like author John Ralston Saul and rabbi Yosef Wosk, in addition to local celebrities like Dick Cannings and Jeanette and Richard Armstrong.

Some interviews proved to be a challenge. Hughes recalls bringing in former Washington Post columnist and Herbert Hoover Institute scholar Arnold Beichman shortly after war began in Iraq.

“He wanted to call Canada to task for not participating in the Iraq war, and use the café as a venue for that. I kind of suggested that we’d be more interested in hearing his stories of being in Vietnam when the war started,” he said, adding Beichman had experiences reporting on Vietnam for the Christian Science Monitor and knew Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “We went in that direction, but he had a strong mind. He was probably 90 when we did the interview. He kept me on my toes. It was definitely something.”

Subject matter can also hit very close to home and prove to be a shot to the heart.

“Perhaps my most powerful interview was with Richard Armstrong of the Penticton Indian Band and his depiction of the day that the cattle trucks came to take the boys off the Indian reserve and take them to the residential school,” Hughes recalled. “He told it in such a way, with no judgment, just a matter of fact, that you could hear a pin drop in that room.

“His father said, ‘You’re not taking my kids today.’ There was the Indian chief, the priest and all the people, and he just said, ‘Nope, it’s not happening.’ They left and Jeanette and Richard didn’t go to the residential school. The way that he told that story, it was riveting.”

Those types of stories are what translate best to the Philosopher’s Café, he explained. Cultures like First Nations and Tibetan monastic followers often have strong traditions preserved through oral history, which can be difficult to contain with written material. But the café treatment allows the history to play out orally, as intended.

“It’s stories upon the stories upon the stories. That’s what it’s about, getting back into the living room telling stories. It’s kind of a forgotten skill,” he said.

In addition to the bigger names, Hughes said he is furthering the Living Portrait Series to ensure the stories of local elders are preserved within the community. Interviews are recorded for posterity.

“It’s just a way to have a living portrait. In case something happens, their stories are down,” he said. “I’ve got a few in mind. If anybody in the public has anyone in mind for a future guest philosopher to talk to who have interesting lives or interesting things to talk about, we’d be more than happy to hear from them.”

The next presentation will be with Bill Phillips, a local man Hughes calls a “real cultural jewel” who has held a variety of careers — from music host on CBC Radio with expertise in everything from South Senegalese djembe drum rhythms to Bach and Miles Davis, to a technical analyst for a hedge fund.

Set for April 15, the 10th anniversary presentation costs $10.75 and includes a Sunday dinner at the Dream Café, 67 Front St. To make a reservation, call 250-490-9012. To discuss the Living Portrait Series with Hughes, call 250-770-1200 or email brian.hughes@rbc.com.