Craig Kielburger sometimes has to skip his Grade 8 math class if he has a media interview scheduled or must answer an urgent fax from India. From a makeshift office in the family den in Thornhill, Ont., just north of Toronto, the dynamic 12-year-old runs a group called Free the Children, which lobbies governments like Canada's to help end the exploitation of kids worldwide. Kielburger and 50 fellow students have already collected 9,000 signatures on a petition urging Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to ban imports made by children and to pressure Third World leaders to introduce mandatory schooling in their countries. "There are children as young as five working chained to the ground in quarries, children in sugar cane fields, and children in dangerous glass factories," says Kielburger.
He founded Free the Children last April after reading about the murder of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old Pakistani boy who was chained to a rug loom for six years after being sold into slavery for $16. "It really upset me," says Kielburger. "What did the two of us have in common except our age?" When he discovered Masih was no isolated case, the Canadian youth snapped into action. Poised and articulate, he regularly speaks to schools and church groups. Last week, he received a standing ovation when he addressed 2,000 delegates at an Ontario Federation of Labour convention in Toronto. The unionists also pledged $150,000 to the cause - a major boost to a nonprofit group that had been raising money through garage sales and selling pop at community fairs.
Kielburger plans to donate much of the money during an upcoming seven-week fact-finding trip to Asia. He has already been to Geneva to meet with experts. They helped refine his sophisticated positions on what he describes as a complex issue. "Product boycotts alone are not the answer," says Kielburger. "No country has ever eliminated child labor without providing compulsory education for all." He has targeted bonded slave labor, prostitution and dangerous industries such as matches and fireworks as "clear-cut" areas deserving special attention.
Kielburger says he eventually would like a career as a doctor with the French group Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Or perhaps as an elected politician. "I personally believe Canada needs more politicians who will stand up for human rights," says Kielburger. His own campaign for children's rights is setting an admirable example.
Maclean's 11 December 1995