Last April, Craig Kielburger of Thornhill, Ontario, read an Associated Press story in his morning newspaper about a boy in Pakistan named Iqbal Masih. At the age of 4, Masih was sold by his parents to settle a $16 debt and had been chained to a rug loom for the next six years. After he escaped, he began to speak out against the exploitation of children. At the age of 12, he was murdered.
Kielburger was himself 12. "It really upset me. What did the two of us have in common except our age?" he said.
So he decided to do something. He read up on the subject, started speaking to school groups and Kiwanis Clubs, founded and staffed with pals and new recruits an organization called Free the Children, and, having just turned 13, set out for Asia on a seven-week fact-finding mission.
It happened that at that very time, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien was leading a trade mission across Asia trying to drum up business for Canadian companies.
Sensing the opportunity, Kielburger asked Chretien for a meeting to discuss his concerns. Kielburger was put off. He introduced reporters to two Indian children he had just liberated from a notorious fireworks factory. He got headlines. He asked for a meeting again in Islamabad. He got 15 minutes of the prime minister's time -- and then he got child exploitation put on the official agenda.
At first "quite vague" in his commitments, Kielburger said, Chretien by the end of the Asia trip apparently had become a true believer. When a Canadian business executive stood up at a dinner to say that it was "not an appropriate time on a business trip" to raise child labor issues, Chretien shot back that "on issues like these, any time is appropriate." He was reported to have received a standing ovation.
There is little doubt in Canada that the issue would never have gotten a nod were it not for the persistent and canny Kielburger, who is fast becoming one of the best-known pre-adolescent human rights activists -- carrying on the crusade of the fallen martyr he never knew, Iqbal Masih.
"There are over 200 million children working in child servitude around the world," Kielburger told reporters in New Delhi, citing carpet-weaving, mines, sugar-cane fields, prostitution and factories making glass, brick and fireworks as zones of acute hazard and widespread child exploitation. Ten million of those children, he said, are in bonded labor, essentially enslaved to their masters.
"Is it right to have children in Pakistan sitting on the floor 12 hours a day sewing those famous brand-name soccer balls that they will never get to play with?" the eighth-grader asked.
Kielburger may have won headlines for nudging his way into Chretien's Asian spotlight, but his real debut in the public eye came in a speech last year before 2,000 members of the Ontario Federation of Labor.
In the speech, he cited a remark by Canada's then-Foreign Minister Andre Ouellet to the effect that "Canadians can't be Boy Scouts" by pressuring other countries on human rights issues. "Well, I'm a Boy Scout," Kielburger said, "and this just means we the children will have to work all the harder to end exploitation of Third World children."
The Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported a "wild standing ovation," followed by spontaneous pledges of funding from union locals. By evening's end, Kielburger was stunned to find he had collected $115,000 in pledges and buckets of $20 bills. "I think I'm going to faint," he said.
Kielburger is the second son of Theresa and Fred Kielburger, schoolteachers in the suburb north of Toronto. His mother and spokeswoman said in an interview -- Craig was having "down time" today after a hectic recent media schedule -- that the young man's parents hardly had been inspirations. "It's kind of embarrassing," she said. "I hate to say it, but we don't do too much. We don't do anything political at all."
When last year's article about the Pakistani boy "moved him so deeply and shook him up," his mother said, the Kielburgers urged him to do research and look into it. He contacted human rights organizations and began to pique their interest in such an unusual and appropriate voice for the cause of child exploitation. He speaks without notes and seems intent on keeping media attention focused on the issue instead of where it would sometimes rather be -- on him.
Published interviews with his school chums indicate an entirely normal young man who enjoys tae kwan do and hanging out in malls and is active in scouting and church activities. "They'd work like beavers to organize this garage sale" to raise money for Free the Children, Theresa Kielburger said, "then they'd all go swimming and goof off."
Among his other accomplishments in just 10 months, he has built an organization with a core of some 50 kids ranging in age from 8 to 14. Other groups of kids who want to affiliate are inundating the Kielburgers' den-turned-war-room with questions about starting chapters.
As the movement he spawned grew bigger and bigger, Kielburger began agitating to make a trip to Asia. He got introductions and accommodations from children's rights organizations, including UNICEF. He found a social worker originally from Bangladesh, whom his mother describes as "brilliant," to serve as his escort, guardian and tutor, and kept pressing his parents to let him take the trip.
"The idea was utterly ridiculous at the time," Theresa Kielburger said. "I wouldn't even let him take the subway downtown." Eventually, they relented.
This week, in the latest evidence of his growing influence on human rights in Canada, Kielburger was offered an advisory role in an appearance with Canada's new foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. The young man was diplomatic. "Hopefully you don't mind if I could just sleep on it," he said, citing the need to consult other members of Free the Children's executive board.
Kielburger said he plans a career in Doctors Without Borders, an international medical relief agency, or possibly in politics. He has begun to broaden his agenda to include kid power in general. "The most important thing I've learned is that kids can make a difference," he told a high school audience this week. "Knowledge is the key, knowledge is the power. Take that power and bring about change." CAPTION: Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children to fight forced child labor in the Third World, speaks at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.