Say what you will, but in the minds of many the words “Grand Forks” have been steeped with thoughts of high water and flooding, at least since 2018. It’s those images that get shared in news that travels beyond the Boundary and it’s those events that have framed Grand Forks stories in the two years since the disaster. A timeline marks a before and an after, punctuated by the repetition of words like “recovery” and “rebuilding.”
But there’s so much that exists outside of that timeline. People and their stories persist. In the words of local musician Justin Hines and a handful of volunteers, “We are more than just a flood.”
To help redraft the narrative of the place and the people, the group set out this past spring to ask their neighbours what was on their minds. Now, the crew is ready to show off what they gathered in a new music video set to Hines’ 2009 track, “Say What You Will.” Hines said that there’s no real agenda with the video – it’s open for the community to use and enjoy.
“We’re so associated with the flood, but I think what I love about this community is its resiliency, and its strength to just plow through it, and we were hoping to showcase that with this video,” Hines said. The Ontario-born musician has deployed the strategy in other communities too. In 2011, he used his song “Tell Me I’m Wrong” to support the people of Joplin, Missouri, who were recovering in the wake of a tornado. “Say What You Will,” meanwhile, has been used in music videos filmed in Toronto, New York, South Africa and Australia that each show off the thoughts and spirits of people in those communities.
This spring, just as COVID-19 restrictions were ramping up, the video production team brought the project to Grand Forks and began filming families and friends on their porches, where each group wrote down what they were thinking about on that given day – a motto, an identifier, a thank-you note, a word of encouragement for the future. Cut between shots of Hines singing the track in-studio, familiar faces to the Boundary flash on screen.
“I am so lucky to be here with you,” reads the whiteboard held by Settle Down Farm owners Ann Wilby and Ahmed Amlani. Elsewhere in the video, Scott and Jeana de Wynter-Wilkie – a teacher and a child and youth worker at Grand Forks Secondary School – sit with their dog and a whiteboard that reads “High school sweethearts.” Further along, one woman’s message insists that “Happiness is loving what you have.”
The prompt to each of the 25 families or individuals who participated in the project was simple: today – in this moment – say what you will to your community.
“I think once we started to gauge people’s reactions and see that there was something emotional and something tangible, it became clear that this was something we should at least attempt to pursue,” Hines said about first seeing “Say What You Will” as an opportunity to feature community voices a decade ago. In Grand Forks, he said, “We were trying to get a diverse group of people together and outline that we’re all connected in one way or another. The differences might be visible and obvious, but there’s just this common link that threads us all together.”
The song itself, with finger-picked guitar and soft drumming, is not on its surface a rousing cheer to connection. In fact, the lyrics can be taken to a more settled and tragic place. It speaks of endings, death, and life-changing moments. Through it all, Hines’ gentle voice insists, “And if I were to die today/my life would be more than okay.”
“I personally see the song as an opportunity,” the singer-songwriter said. “It’s a message of opportunity to just remember that there’s things bigger than us and that one of the best things we can do is to support one another.”
Hines also credits “Say What You Will” with growing his opportunities as a professional musician. The tune came out on his second album in 2009 and in 48 hours became the most downloaded track from a singer-songwriter at the time. He connected with The Canadian Tenors and other major North American acts to perform, and for six years he toured and continued to make music. Then, in 2015, Hines had to rein in his work for health reasons.
“I figured things were kind of over for me at that point – it was becoming too difficult for me to perform on a regular basis and to make music,” Hines said. Then, “Say What You Will,” a song that shirks mourning for gratitude and reflection, took on new meaning again.
“I realized that the song sort of became my message,” he said. “I very often found myself saying thank you [to supporters] and feeling grateful for the time I’ve had in music – I didn’t really have a lot of resentment towards not being able to do it anymore. So, as simple as the song is, it ended up becoming just a symbol of my journey.”
Hines said that being a songwriter means that once you release a new tune, or perform something onstage, it’s no longer strictly yours. The audience participates, interprets, projects meaning and adapts it as their own, much in the same way that the people featured in the Grand Forks video have shaped its meaning to be different than for those in Joplin, Toronto or New York.
The people featured – many of them friends of Hines’ – “have some sort of backstory that would either break your heart or make you question things [you thought you knew],” the musician said. Seeing what his friends and neighbours wrote on their whiteboards, Hines said that “It made me appreciate [the community even] more. Just to the strength and humanity that’s in this community.”
The “Say What You Will” Grand Forks music video was thought up by Alf Him, filmed by Peter Kalasz and Tina Bryan, and supported by Savanna Hines, Erinne Allen and Deb Baker. The video can be found with the online version of this story, or by searching “Say What You Will Grand Forks” on YouTube.