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Generation Craig

Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger has inspired thousands of children to become social activists. As more and more kids get involved, our very notions of childhood are changing.

By Jocelyn Bell

The phrase "boundless energy" comes to mind as Craig Kielburger hops up the chancel steps at Eglinton St. George's United Church in Toronto. The founder and chair of Free the Children, the world's largest network of children helping children, smiles broadly and begins his speech. "When I think of Africa, I think of heroes," he says, leaning forward in his shoes like he's about to take flight. "Ordinary people who just rose up to a call that was put before them."

The 300 people sitting in the sanctuary on this Sunday afternoon in February smile back at him. They nod knowingly when Kielburger reminds them that calls come every day. They breathe a small sigh of relief when he tells them that they shouldn't feel guilty about what they have "because those aren't helpful feelings." They glance nervously at the young people sitting beside them when he says, quoting the Dalai Lama, "The greatest threat to our world is we're raising a generation of passive bystanders." And when it's all over, they stand in long lines to get the signature of the young man who has been fighting for child rights on the international stage since he was in junior high school.

At the ripe old age of 24, Kielburger is the granddaddy of Canada's growing child activism movement. If he's not the first, he's certainly the most successful example of a generation of kids — thousands of them — who are starting petitions, writing letters, raising money, speaking out and demanding to be heard. They are a generation who have grown up in a world that stays connected and informed through 24-hour news and the internet. Their schools make volunteerism and social activism part of the curriculum. Their parents' presiding philosophy is no longer "Wait until you're older," but "You can make a difference." In short, a generation of active child citizens has been born.

The idea of children as citizens in their own right is actually fairly recent. Western society has tended to cast children as innocent, frail, powerless and lacking in reason, wisdom and competence. "When they are viewed merely as potential adults or incomplete persons, their status as autonomous citizens capable of . . . participating in political and social life is severely undermined," writes Carleton University Sociology and Anthropology professor Daiva Stasiulis, in her 2004 paper, The Active Child Citizen.

In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among other things declared "every child's right to full and meaningful participation." It was a departure from the predominant view of children as adults-in-waiting. Rather, it cast children as "full human beings, invested with agency, integrity and decision-making capacities," Stasiulis continues.

Kielburger agrees that the UN convention was critical to the global understanding of children. "Prior to that declaration, the idea of having a conference on youth, without inviting a youth, was the norm. For some reason, it was socially acceptable."

Canadians were just beginning to accept the idea of children as full citizens when Kielburger burst onto the scene. At age 12, he was leafing through the Toronto Star at his home in Thornhill, Ont., looking for the comics, when a front-page story caught his eye. Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old former child labourer-turned-activist from Pakistan, was gunned down in front of his home. A week later, Kielburger stood in front of his classroom and asked who would be willing to join him in doing something about it. Eleven friends raised their hands. They started a petition, then had a garage sale to raise money to build a school. That was the beginning of Free the Children.

Soon after, Kielburger decided he wanted to see child labour for himself and begged his parents to let him go on a trip. Initially, they said no, but agreed months later when Kielburger found a 25-year-old university student willing to take him backpacking for seven weeks through India, Pakistan, Nepal and Thailand.

As it happened, Kielburger was travelling at the same time as then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was on a trade mission to India. He requested a meeting with the Prime Minister, intent on demanding that child labour be included on the agenda. When his request was refused, Kielburger held a press conference. The media had a field day until the Prime Minister acquiesced. The victory launched Kielburger's international profile, and he's been campaigning for child rights ever since.

But being a pioneer of Canadian child activism often meant swimming against the current. When Free the Children first started, "people would tap us on the head and say, 'How cute. This group of kids wants to change the world.' But would they take us seriously?" Kielburger asks rhetorically. Or worse, Kielburger recalls giving a talk when a man stood up and said, "I'd rather listen to your father than listen to you because children should be seen and not heard." Then the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine carried an article attacking Kielburger's fundraising practices. He sued for libel and settled out of court for $319,000, money he donated back to Free the Children after paying his legal fees.

Being young and outspoken has its advantages, though. Kielburger doesn't deny that the novelty of his age made him a media darling and also opened doors on Parliament Hill. But he also says a child's worldview can help. "Children have an innate ability to feel suffering and injustice and to be far more emotional in their feelings," he says. "They haven't accepted certain social norms, like there will always be poverty. The child who says, 'This child is hungry; let's feed them,' might sound naïve to an adult. In fact, that's a compassionate, logical, very well thought of response. To say that we can end poverty in our world isn't naïve; it's idealistic. But young people need to be shamelessly idealistic in our world because it's the only way things will change."

Kielburger's determination has paved the way for other children. Several child-led foundations have sprung up in Free the Children's wake (see sidebar). Thousands of children — even beyond the 100,000 registered members of Free the Children — are taking action before adulthood, challenging their parents and teachers alike.

When Ian MacGregor was six years old, he heard his mother, Trish, a lay worship leader, speak to a United church about Ryan Hreljac, founder of a clean water charity called Ryan's Well (see sidebar). The Seaforth, Ont., boy decided that if Ryan could start fundraising at age six, then he could, too.

He made up his mind to raise $5,000 for a well in Africa. "He doesn't think kids should die when they live in Africa. He thinks it's wrong and he wants to make a difference," says Trish.

At first, Trish worried about her son's goal. "I doubted whether he could do it. I was more trying to protect him (from disappointment) than encourage him," she admits. Now seven, Ian is more than halfway there. His church, St. Andrew's United in Kippen, Ont., has supported the effort with generous donations and celebrations along the way.

Another child, Johanne Young, was driving with her mother, Robin, through Calgary when she saw homeless people sleeping under a bridge. Saddened, the nine-year-old cellist and member of Scarboro United decided to put on a recital. The benefit concert raised $400 for The Mustard Seed, a shelter for Calgary's homeless. Today, Johanne is 13 and busy with a petition to stop the Calgary Zoo from adding polar bears to its collection.

Robin, who homeschools her children at their home in Chestermere, Alta., struggles with her decision to shield Johanne from the media. Though she knows that getting Johanne into the local paper could help further her daughter's various causes, "I have a problem with doing good so you could be famous. Children know why they're doing it when they first start. It gets turned into something else when we publicize it," she says.

Yet another young activist, Julia Rutherford of Coquitlam, B.C., recently saw a TV news report about how an unusually snowy winter was affecting Vancouver's homeless. The seven-year-old Grade 2 student decided to act. She gathered icicles in the school playground and tried (and failed) to sell them to her classmates for $5 apiece. The next day, Julia was called into the principal's office and made to write a statement about why her actions were unacceptable. Julia's mother, Treena Duncan, met with the principal soon afterward. "She told me that Julia's intentions were honourable and it's a testament to the parenting — but she didn't say that to Julia," Duncan says, not hiding her disappointment.

With her mother's help, Julia has redirected her efforts to help "the people on the sidewalk," as she calls them. In February, Julia sold homemade Valentine's cookies to her congregation at Eagle Ridge United, raising $165 for a homeless shelter at First United in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"The church can be one of the few places where children are supported," observes Amy Crawford, the United Church staff person for ministry with children. "We can let children know about the sad situations in the world, and show them that there's something they can do to make a difference."

As more and more kids become active child citizens, our very notions of childhood and parenting are changing.

Duncan, 36, says when she was young, parents tried to shield children from the sad news of the world and schools didn't engage in social justice projects. In contrast, she allows her five-year-old son to watch the news and takes her kids travelling. "There's definitely more of a consciousness now. Their worlds are just bigger than ours were," she says.

Active child citizens, and the adults who support them, may be our best hope for the future — and the present, Kielburger says. "Charity is not just writing a cheque. If you want to eliminate poverty in developing countries, you need to shift attitudes here. It's creating a generation of young people who are compassionate, active global citizens. Only when that happens do you eliminate poverty overseas."

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