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I see you, Quesnel

Cariboo observed through unique lens
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Kaho Michihara is clear of vision, even though she cannot see like most people.

“I’m totally blind,” she said. “These glasses are only protecting my eyes from impacts. I was partially blind for a long, long time. I lost my vision gradually. I became totally blind in Canada, but I was prepared. I knew how to do braille, how to use my computer or smartphone with a screen reader, how to navigate myself with my cane, so I was not that scared. And I have so many friends who are totally blind who are doing so well, so they are great role models for me to know that being blind is not that bad.”

Her vision started to fade as a child in her hometown of Shizuoka, on the eastern coast of Japan, in clear view of Mount Fuji. It’s a sight people pay handsomely to see, ironically. And the Cariboo, too, is a region tourists admire and locals appreciate for all the beauty of the landscape.

So what is the appeal of Quesnel for someone immune to that marketing, and unable to gaze upon the mountains and rivers, or stare at the forests and grassland? What does she see in this place she can’t see?

It all started when she moved to Vancouver to further her education. She was feeling adventurous and wanted to experience living in a multicultural country, so it started as a one-month practicum trip through her school back home. That was 2016, and she has been primarily a resident of Canada ever since, even through the pandemic. First, she got into a schooling stream that would allow her to stay, and ended up at Langara College in the social services line of courses. She wanted to go farther with that, and found a degree program she liked offered by UNBC at their Lower Mainland satellite campus.

The problem was, UNBC was closing that office. If Michihara wanted to continue, she would have to move to one of Fort St. John, Terrace or Quesnel. She picked the one closest to Vancouver, and got a promise of reserving her spot while she visited the campus in person.

“The UNBC staff here gave me a tour, found me a home-stay, they did everything. I really appreciate it. I can’t live here without their help. So I thought: people are nice, here, so friendly, flexible, so kind. This is where I want to be.”

She is now finished her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and will graduate in May. She loved her time here, and noticed some things along the way.

“It’s definitely harder here,” for someone with a disability. “For me, it is transit. In Vancouver I can go anywhere by myself using bus and train. Here, people cannot live without their car. HandiDart only works from 9 to 3, Monday to Friday. City buses, only four a day. So that is one issue I have that prevents me to be independent as much as I was in Vancouver. And it’s not only me. Anyone who doesn’t have a car has to rely on other people. For me, that’s tough. And how can anyone with disabilities work full-time if those are the conditions?”

Challenges have solutions. One of the best parts of the community, she said, was the investment people here make in one another. People help. People support. People accept differences and invite in instead of shut out.

“I think people in Canada, in general, are more open to diversity,” she said. “I know there are lots of issues in Canada, but for me, I’m healthier when I’m in Canada than when I’m in Japan. As a female person with disabilities, I have so many barriers, but I like learning social work in Canada. In Japan, learning social work is more about fixing individuals, but in Canada, at least at UNBC, it is more about how to change the society. That is very therapeutic for me. In Japan, nobody told me that it wasn’t me who was wrong. In Japan, I always blamed myself for having an issue. In Canada I learned that this is not me being a wrong person, it is how society is structured and that can be changed. So this is what I love to learn.”

She now wants to go immediately into a Master’s degree program and one of the places she has applied is UNBC, hoping to stay in this region that took her in and enabled her to learn such valuable lessons. Her career aspiration is to do research into the social work field as it pertains to people with disabilities who suffer from mental health and addictions issues.

And no, the winters did not scare her off. There were times when she was so cold she’d don “as much clothes as I have, and I cover myself with a blanket,” and marvel at how people would still be optimistic about the weather when the temperatures were below -30C. Now, she is attuned to the winters.

“Our school (in Japan) shut down at plus three degrees Celsius because they said it was too cold for kids,” Michihara said. “Now, when I’m at home on a holiday, and it’s a few degrees above freezing, I’m the one who says ‘oh, warm, nice.’”

Michihara has met only one other Japanese person in Quesnel, so far. Her command of English is so strong, though, so she interacts easily with local residents. She even sings in a local choir, the Q City Singers, using a braille machine to help her follow the lyrics.

“I needed some place to get out of my school work. I was extremely busy, so occupied by my school, and I was doing my practicum which is emotionally so heavy. I just needed to have some self-care and the choir was a great place for me. And I got to know so many new people, so that helped with my sense of community, and I really appreciated that.”

Michihara was enrolled in a boarding school in Tokyo at the age of 12, because it specialized in vision-challenged students. She is still close with her family, but got used to living independently since that young age. Now she chooses her path in life, and she has freely chosen the Cariboo. She hopes local residents enjoy that observation.

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