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Credit: Martin Alarie, Agence QMI, Journal de Montréal, 2022-02-13
A blocked downtown Ottawa street during the Freedom Convoy.

A First Image: Love and Freedom

One spring morning, in a clinician’s office in Québec, a mother and child talk passionately about the good times they had at the Freedom Convoy, a protest against COVID-19 mandates that gathered thousands of people and more than 400 heavy-load trucks in downtown Ottawa for three weeks at the beginning of 2022. The mother, recalling the atmosphere that prevailed during the few days she spent there with her daughter and a few friends, expresses to the clinician with passion in her voice and a hand pounding her chest, “C’était juste de l’amour là-bas! Juste de l’amour!” (It was only love over there! Only love!). Then the child, turning to her mother, asks with a smile and sparkling eyes, “Maman, c’est quand qu’on retourne à la liberté?” (Mom, when do we go back to Freedom?).

A clinician friend shared this scene that unfolded in her office with me after I told her that I am working on a paper about the images of the Freedom Convoy children that circulated in the media during that time. I am particularly interested in how these images—not only visual, but also textual, verbal, and mental images—may affect the way people see these children, including professionals from health and social services who work with them. A few weeks earlier, the idea of doing a project on the Freedom Convoy had emerged from a discussion with a colleague who is part of a clinical team dedicated to the prevention of violent radicalization in Montreal, called the Polarization team. By the time we were having that conversation, the Convoy was over, but I was told it had haunted many of the team’s meetings, as some of the clinicians’ patients were parents who supported the Convoy and held anti-system and far-right views, just like many of the Ottawa protesters did. “They are going to do another one,” she told me with a smirk on her face. “They had too much fun.” And she was right. There have been a few attempts to repeat the event, although all have failed. These days, it is the media coverage of the trial against the Convoy organizers that occupies dinnertime conversations, and the fact that they are now facing charges of mischief, obstructing police, counseling others to commit mischief, and intimidation.

Another observation that led to this work challenged me deeply. It had to do with the Othering processes we all engage in from time to time, the violence that we all bear. It concerns the strong contempt that the Convoy participants aroused in many. It was commonplace to hear people talk passionately about the fact that children present at this protest were, in a way, used as human shields by their parents to discourage or counter potential intervention by security forces. This image left a strong impression on me, just as it did on the friends and colleagues with whom I discussed the topic. Yet feedback from participants who attended the Convoy was quite different, evoking more of a meaningful, joyful, and satisfying moment than a stressful one, for children and adults alike. Even the images in the media seemed to prove them right, showing children playing with big building blocks and jumping in colorful bouncy castles, never crying or in danger. Contrary to most of the media’s coverage, the parents in the Convoy repeatedly stated that they were there for their children, for their freedom, for their future. They evoked another image and said they were demonstrating so that the medical and governmental institutions would stop using their children as guinea pigs.

A few questions then formed in my mind. What can be made of these seemingly opposing images? Can they be reconciled? And what does their joint presence mean?

In their introduction to the edited volume Transcultural Montage, Willerslev and Suhr define the principle of montage as “the joining together of different elements in a variety of combinations, repetitions, and overlaps.” They write about montage as an “amplifier of invisibility” and how the power of montage lies in its capacity to shake up commonsensical views of what we call reality and provoke “generative instability,” thus provoking, suggesting, or evoking new ways of perceiving connections. Through juxtaposing and accumulating, the montage allows for “the opening of a gap or fissure, through which the invisible emerges.” As they justly point out, “the subversive potential of montage lies in its capacity for altering the obvious first sense of an object, image, or perspective by combining two or more elements.”

Through a montage of the images of the Convoy children emerges the increasing polarization of the world they inhabit.

I must specify that I did not attend the Ottawa Freedom Convoy. I did not take part in the protests against vaccine mandates. Did not see the big trucks. Did not hear the loud horns. Did not smell the toxic fumes. Did not feel the carnival atmosphere. Did not see the hot tubs and the bouncy castles. As an ethnographer and qualitative health researcher, I am more comfortable with a participatory stance in research, working with people, not studying them from a distance and in their absence. The idea of writing about the Convoy without having been there myself, without fieldwork and ethnographic data, one might say, stimulated a deep malaise in me. And to be totally honest with myself, I was having difficulties empathizing with the participants in the Convoy and found it rather disturbing.

It was a contagion of images that succeeded in making me inhabit the world of the Convoy supporters.

Credit: Benoit Daoust/Shutterstuck
Children and teenagers playing hockey with adults in the middle of a street during the Freedom Convoy.

A Second Image: A Refuge from the Clock (Love and Freedom)

One day, as I was getting out of the metro station and lost in my thoughts, a colleague joined me and we walked together, chatting all the way to the office. I told her about the analytical work I was doing on the images of the Convoy children and how difficult it was for me to step back from a normative, moralizing stance toward their parents. I then told her about the scene in my friend’s office, the one of the child who seemed to want to return to the Convoy. And my colleague then shared this thought with me: “It reminds me of the refugee families I worked with in the past. . . . Sometimes, a child would express the desire to return to the camps, to leave this new world and this new life. There are many things lacking in the camps—food, toilets, and so on—but life there is much less regulated and set to the minute. And what is more, she added, they spend their days with family and friends.” And then, I finally felt this attraction to the Convoy. I finally understood this desire for such an interruption. This lack of trust in the goodwill and benevolence of the powerful. This deep wish to escape from this world that is spinning out of control while our lives are increasingly controlled, especially with this pandemic and the social tensions it has exacerbated. I can relate, I finally thought.

The thousands who took part in the Freedom Convoy were not a homogeneous group. Some were there to oppose vaccine mandates, while others attended to express their dissatisfaction with the Trudeau government and its social policies. And still others were present for the festive atmosphere and sense of community, for the appeal of transgression following months of pandemic restrictions and social isolation. But the ghost of the far right and white supremacism hung over the event. And the image of the Convoy participants as spoiled children unaware of their privileges also loomed large in the hundreds of newspaper articles my colleagues and I analyzed. Several powerful images were seen on placards in the crowds. “My Body, My Choice!” and “Every Child Matters!” stood side by side with “Want to Play!” in childlike calligraphy, not to mention Confederate flags and Nazi symbols, which aroused a seemingly consensual outrage. Needless to say, these combinations of images and semantic shifts are not without effects and consequences.

When I saw that the children of the Convoy were portrayed as human shields by some journalists, my spontaneous reaction was to tell myself that since they were mainly from white families, then these children were not really in danger of any possible intervention by the security forces. And the violence of the thought made me shudder. The horror of children being in various degrees of danger or protection depending on their sociocultural background hit me hard. It was nothing I did not already know, but it was like a punch in the gut all the same.

In hindsight, we can only realize now how COVID-19 was so much more than an international public health emergency. We were able to witness in real time how a pandemic is not only about the spread of viruses and diseases but also about the contagion of narratives and images. The importance of images relates to their centrality in our lived experiences but also to their use as powerful tools in communication, as allies in convincing oneself and others of a certain way of seeing things. A careful selection of images can work to bring one to notice certain aspects of a situation more than others, can serve as a pivot between one interpretation of events and another. A careful selection of images can operate a blurring of distinction, can allow for an irruption of the past (or future) into the present, thus grabbing our attention, stimulating an affective reaction, and at times changing our intentions.

In reading the hundreds of articles selected for our analyses, three images of the Convoy children came to the fore. That of the victim, instrumentalized on both sides, but always by the Other who is thought of as more violent than oneself. Children as being used, influenced, indoctrinated, and de-subjectivized by the Other. The image of children as a challenge for police intervention was also ubiquitous. This frames the presence of children as an interruption, as a grain of sand in the oiled gear of the system’s invisible violence of everyday life. But the image of children as an image of the future was also very present in the media. A future that can be worrying, but equally hopeful.

Credit: Michel Elzo/Shutterstuck
Children holding protest placards at the Ottawa Freedom Convoy.

A Final Image: Attaching Oneself to the World

I would like to end on an image of hope. On the belief that it is still possible to survive our disagreements. On a wish that may seem utopian to some, or that can be qualified as normative by others, commenting on clinical prevention work from the comfort of their academic ivory towers. I would like to end on an image of courage.

Here is a final scene. I was sitting with some colleagues during our lunch break, and I was having a side conversation with one of the clinicians from the Polarization team. I was telling her about my interest in her work and my admiration for what they are able to accomplish as a team with their interventions. I was also sharing with her my concerns about how they manage to work with people who are filled with so much anger and so much hatred. And I remember she told me that there is no point in confronting them about their beliefs and their ideologies. She also said that, in fact, if you do that, it tends to make them even more angry and more rigid and more radical. And then, as I recall, she paused a little and then she said, “You know, it’s like . . . you need to try to reattach the person to the world. You need to try and weave small threads, one after the other.”

I cannot help but wonder, what world do we want to build and attach our children to? And who is this we?


For reasons of confidentiality, all the protagonists in the ethnographic scenes have been feminized.


While taking full responsibility for the content of this piece, the author would like to thank the following people for their contribution to the analytical and reflective work that made it possible: Cécile Rousseau, Christian Desmarais, Frédéric Laporte, Yolanda Smith-Hanson, and Natasha Thomas. Merci infiniment.

Mel Salm and Victoria Sheldon are the section contributing editors for the Society for Medical Anthropology


Janique Johnson-Lafleur

Janique Johnson-Lafleur is a researcher at Sherpa University Institute in Montréal, Québec, and assistant professor in research at the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill University.

Cite as

Johnson-Lafleur, Janique. 2024. “Of Children and Big Trucks.” Anthropology News website, February 13, 2024.