THORNHILL, ONTARIO — Craig Kielburger remembers the day last April when he read about the murder of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old child-labor activist in Pakistan, and suddenly realized he and Iqbal were the same age.
"I could just compare both our lives and see what he was trying to push for," says Craig, now 13, at his suburban Thornhill, Ontario, home. "I thought if he could do so much, that I should try to do something too."
That was one year, five Asian countries, and one visit with the prime minister of Canada ago. A precocious verbal dynamo, who enjoys skiing and basketball, Craig has formed an activist group called Free the Children. He speaks at schools across Canada.
Craig's first big moment came when he upstaged Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien by insisting that child labor be raised as an issue during a trade trip to Asia. Although reluctant, Mr. Chrtien did raise the issue and has since put children's rights higher on his foreign agenda.
On Monday, Craig will testify in Washington before a congressional committee looking into following Europe's lead on labeling rugs and other imports to certify them "free" from child labor.
Despite all his accomplishments, Craig frequently finds himself defending the alien (to some) idea that young people really do want to do more do than just play video games and go to the mall.
"I've had people come up and say, 'You're only 13, how could you be involved in such causes? People your age don't care about causes like that - who's pushing you?' " Craig says. "Well, I've seen children ... my age, who are fighting in wars or working in factories 18 hours a day. I don't approve of those things - but I think it shows children can do more than people give them credit for."
It all began when ...
Craig got started with a presentation on child labor for his seventh-grade class. Confident in the power of children to change the world, he then invited school mates to join Free the Children. Fifty signed up. Today 300 children are FTC members. (Adults are valued partners, but can only become "associate" members.)
Working after school, Craig and friends began putting together information packets and circulating petitions. Soon Craig realized he needed to actually meet the children he was trying to help.
Did his parents have misgivings? Not many, say his mother, Theresa, and his father, Fred - both school teachers. They have watched with interest as Craig has taken on this challenge, lending help and support only when needed. They approve all trips, requiring him to detail his plans. Craig's teachers let him do his school work on the road.
After scraping together air fare, overseas contacts, and parental support, Craig set out in December with Alam Rahman, a young Canadian of Bangladeshi origin, on a seven-week fact-finding trip to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Thailand.
Then, in New Delhi, Craig saw a chance to advance his cause when Chrtien arrived on a trade mission. He wanted to tell Chrtien about the appalling conditions. But he was told the prime minister was too busy to see him.
So Craig held a news conference where he told what he had seen in alleys and factories, introducing two children just freed by the South Asian Coalition of Child Servitude (SACCS) from forced work in Indian carpet factories. The story made headlines at home. Chrtien's aides huddled - then called Craig for a meeting. After that, child labor was high on the prime minister's agenda for the rest of the trip.
"I'm glad [Chrtien] eventually did bring up the issue with some of the government officials and businessmen," Craig says. "But there has to be a long-term commitment on his behalf because the issue of child labor is not going to be solved overnight."
Nobody knows how many children worldwide are in bonded labor or outright slavery. Some estimate there are 200 million, but data are incomplete.
In India alone, an estimated 16 percent (55 million) of the nation's 340 million children under age 16 are daily workers, many toiling in harsh conditions, according to SACCS. Similar percentage estimates apply to Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines and Egypt.
Canada has long championed human rights. But recently rights have been downplayed in favor of expanded trade ties. Chrtien and other officials have said Canada cannot be a "Boy Scout" on rights issues and risk losing out on expanded trade opportunities.
But that argument doesn't wash with Craig, who is himself a Boy Scout. "I'm not asking Canada to sanction any countries or to boycott them," he says. "We're just asking our government to copy UNICEF's policy of only buying products not produced by the exploitation of children."
Canada seems to be responding. Foreign ministry officials will soon travel to Germany to explore a labeling system to certify that goods entering Canada are free of child labor. Parliament also introduced legislation this month that would allow the prosecution of Canadians who travel overseas for sex with children.
Craig notes that although several international conventions have been established condemning child labor and the exploitation of children, there has been precious little enforcement.
It's time for Canada to take the lead, he says. "We're lucky in Canada. What better country is there to push for an international consensus?"
The children he met
Amid the fast pace of media interviews, Craig's vivid memories of children he met remain with him.
One 8-year-old girl crouched in a corner of a recycling factory in Madras, India, separating filthy syringes from their needles to recycle the plastic. She had no shoes, no gloves, and at one point stepped on the pile of needles.
"I was suddenly dragged away by my guide. I didn't understand why. Apparently the person next to her told [my guide] that if the owner saw her talking and not working, he would beat her."
Another Indian boy named Nageshwer, age 14, had worked 15-hour days in a carpet factory for years until he was freed. His grandfather had taken a small loan years ago and the boy was working to pay it off. Burn marks covered his body from punishments with a hot iron.
Mohan, a 9-year-old Indian boy told Craig how two other young boys tried to escape a carpet factory but were caught. They were killed in front of the other child workers to show what would happen if they tried to escape.
"I met them all over," Craig says. "It's made a complete difference in the way I see things. I'm here - I'm not rich, but I'm not struggling either. But people over there are struggling. And that's one of the reasons I feel so strongly."
To Craig, education is the ultimate solution and so his group plans to build and finance a rehabilitation center in India to educate freed child laborers.
His most vivid recollection is of accompanying 23 children freed by SACCS from a carpet factory back to their villages.
The truck the children were in got stuck in a rain-swollen stream around midnight. But rather than being terrified, the children got out and helped push the truck.
"We were completely sopping wet ... and when we all piled back in, the children just started singing about how they were free and going home. It was late at night and quite cold. And the first thing on their mind is singing, rejoicing that they're free. I could hardly believe it then. But I'm beginning to understand."