Community & Current Events

The accidental activists: Craig and Marc Kielburger

By: Chistine Langlois

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

The accidental activists: Craig and Marc Kielburger

By: Chistine Langlois
Marc Kielburger apologizes for the mess as he moves stacks of files, unopened mail and brochure material off an old sofa. With posters tacked to the walls and mismatched furniture, the space feels more like student digs than the downtown Toronto office of the executive director of Free the Children (FTC), a $4-million charity. And Marc, in blue jeans with a couple of unopened sub sandwiches sitting beside his laptop, looks more like a young intern who's just getting his feet wet than the boss of this successful organization. But appearances can be deceiving.

As social activists with a string of accomplishments between them, Marc and his more famous brother, Craig, have been meeting and exchanging views with celebrities, world thinkers and thousands of kids and adults on children's rights issues as well as peace building and volunteering initiatives since they were young teens growing up in Thornhill, Ont. FTC, an international network that has built more than 400 schools in developing countries, was launched by Craig when he was just 12. Its sister organization, Leaders Today, offers leadership programs and volunteer opportunities to young people abroad.

Big accomplishments

These days, Marc, a former Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, oversees the various facets of the brothers' good works while Craig has taken on the role of full-time student at the University of Toronto. While he clears a spot on his office couch, Marc talks about the "amazing" (a trademark expression) time he and his partner, Roxanne Joyal, had the night before. They were in Santa Barbara, Calif., for an FTC meeting and had lunch with the American journalism titan Walter Cronkite, an honorary adviser to the organization. Walter asked them to stay for dinner. At the time, the November 2004 presidential election was days away and Walter wanted to talk politics and share stories from his six decades covering campaigns. "He gave us the most incredible history lesson," says the 27-year-old, with obvious excitement. As soon as he could, Marc got on the phone to tell his younger brother, Craig, all about the eventful night.

Craig, 21, was a tad jealous. Instead of rubbing shoulders with a media icon in balmy California, he took time away from his studies to take on the less glamorous – but equally important – task of wading through an early snowfall in Red Deer, Alta., to give a speech on behalf of FTC (one of 70 he gives a year) and hand out awards to rural kids involved in farming. One recipient was being honoured for his innovative idea for saving threatened farms. "It was worth the trip," says Craig sincerely.

And the award goes to...

The two brothers have received a slew of awards for their work. Craig has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Marc was named one of Canada's Top 40 under 40 in 2003. Given all that they've accomplished, you can't help but wonder before you meet this pair just what you're in for. Can two brothers, still in their 20s, who have experienced so much and achieved so much for so many, still be just a couple of nice normal guys?

Page 1 of 5 - Read page two to find out what Craig and Marc are like in real life

Fortunately, yes. Both Marc and Craig are as down-to-earth as they come; they're both warm, friendly and quick to laugh. Craig is a people person who listens intently and asks lots of questions. He talks about how much fun he has connecting to the young children he meets in his travels by making faces and playing peekaboo games with them. Marc peppers his conversation with adjectives such as "cool" and finishes every conversation about his work with some statement that reveals just how fortunate he feels to be doing it. And both brothers will modestly tell you they believe that everyone, in his or her own
way, can do what they both do. "We're both accidental activists," says Marc, adding they slowly got hooked on the joys of helping others.

Where it all began
Craig's role model for getting involved in social change was brother Marc. At 13, Marc became interested in environmental issues and eventually developed environmentally friendly cleaning products for a high school science project. He started collecting names on petitions for various environmental initiatives and enlisted his little brother, Craig, to help out. "He'd get me to go up and ask the girls to sign. They always would because I was so cute," says Craig, laughing.

So the seed of social consciousness was already planted when at age 12 Craig read with great dismay in the morning paper about the killing of another 12-year-old, Iqbal Masih, a freed child labourer from Pakistan. Indeed, he was so moved by Iqbal's struggles to end child labour and his eventual murder that he couldn't stop thinking about it. "I was shocked, and then I thought, What can I do? I'm only one person."

They caught the charity bug

But then Craig recalled Marc's zeal in raising people's awareness of environmental issues and that struck a chord. "I remember thinking, If he could do it, I can, too." A few weeks later, with the help of his school librarian, Craig had gathered enough information and mustered up the courage to talk to his Grade 7 class about child labour and ask if other kids wanted to join a group to fight against it. That first step back in 1995 eventually led to the participation of hundreds of thousands of children in 35 countries.

Craig and Marc's parents, Theresa and Fred, now retired schoolteachers, were big on supporting their kids in whatever they wanted to try. But they didn't set out to raise activists. Marc and Craig simply dragged them, but not unwillingly, along for the ride. "Sometimes our parents wonder where we really came from," jokes Marc.

Page 2 of 5 - Read page three to find out about Craig and Marc's parents played a roll in getting them into the charity business.

Theresa is reluctant to discuss her sons and their work. But she's happy to talk about what she contributed to their outlook and values as a parent, which was teaching her sons to be aware of the world around them and making sure they had chances to learn from real-life experiences. "Kids become so desensitized by television and the media," says Theresa. "It's important to sensitize them, and you have to do it when they are young." Theresa talks about using small gestures – stopping to have a conversation with a homeless person rather than just handing over change, or asking a child to imagine what it feels like to be the kid in the class who everyone teases. These simple gestures raise kids' respect for others who are less fortunate.

Exceeding expectations

But Theresa and Fred got more than they bargained for when Craig took the idea of real-life experiences to the extreme. At age 13 he begged to go off to Asia for seven weeks to meet child labourers and learn about their lives firsthand with a human-rights worker who agreed to accompany him. Again Marc had already blazed the trail. He and Roxanne, who Marc met in his high school days and is now involved with Leaders Today, had taken time off from university to do volunteer work in Thailand with mothers and babies with HIV/AIDS. Still, it took Craig a long time to convince Mom and Dad to let him venture off to Asia, although it was something he clearly wanted so deeply. Theresa and Fred finally agreed once they were assured that the trip would be safe and Craig had raised half the airfare himself.

For years, Craig and Marc's endeavours took over the Kielburger home, which was the former FTC headquarters. "Sometimes I'd have 50 kids in the house," says Theresa. Marc adds that they often had dinner sitting on the couch because the dining room table was covered with FTC material. Eventually Theresa and Fred put their feet down and reclaimed their home. The FTC office moved to downtown Toronto a couple of years ago, but the family house still serves as the warehouse for its supplies, with spare bedrooms, the basement and garage filled floor to ceiling with school kits, medical supplies and furniture – all waiting to be sent to new projects. "We have never parked our car in the garage – never. It's always full of stuff being shipped to Africa or South America," says Theresa.

Page 3 of 5 - Read page four to find out why the Kielburgers love what they do

Today, Craig and Marc can't imagine moving on from their work with FTC. They don't see it as work at all, but rather a lifestyle that they're firmly entrenched in. Volunteering is something Craig fits into his (almost) typical student existence. He greets me in the lobby of Trinity College, his residence at University of Toronto for the past three years, and graciously takes me on a tour of the 80-year-old stone building before we settle in a common room to talk. From the quadrangle he points out his room, with its leaded glass windows, up high in the tower nearest the chapel. "The place is a bit Harry Potter," he jokes. It's also more tradition-bound than Craig would have chosen for himself; he ended up at the University of Trinity College because it's the only place in Canada where his program of choice, peace building and conflict resolution, is offered. He avoids taking part in one of the formal rituals though – men are expected to wear suits, ties and black gowns to dinner – by signing up for an earlier mealtime.

Later on in the tour we meet a group of female students rearranging furniture and decorating for a prom the next night. Craig offers to help out, but he's happy to skip the prom part – an experience he had twice in high school. His interests in campus activities lean more toward the intellectual, such as a recent lecture he heard by a political scientist on environment and global security. The reality is that with a tight schedule of speaking engagements and meetings fit in around a full course load, Craig doesn't have much time for many other interests. He does relax by hanging out with friends and taking in the odd movie.

Marc and Roxanne

Marc, who doesn't travel as much as Craig, has a slightly less frenetic life. He and Roxanne live in an apartment in the Beaches area of Toronto and their downtime is spent doing typical couple things – watching movies, working out, spending time with friends and cooking. "Roxanne makes a mean vegetarian lasagna," says Marc. His prescription for dealing with the inevitable stress of the job is not taking himself too seriously and learning from disappointments.

The two brothers obviously relish the chance to work together, although surprisingly it's not something they ever expected to do – "never in a million years," says Marc. They weren't particularly close as kids. With a six-year age gap between them, Craig didn't see much of Marc, and Marc says it simply wasn't cool to hang out with his younger brother. And by the time Craig was a 12-year-old going on national television to decry the plight of child labourers, Marc was away at university or travelling on the other side of the world with Roxanne.

Page 4 of 5 - Read page five to see what the Kielburgers are up to now.

Still, they've been to dozens of countries to volunteer together and met people from street children to Mother Teresa. And they've had a few misadventures that turned out to be bonding experiences. On one trip to a rural area of Kenya, Marc decided to teach 15-year-old Craig to drive in an old, stripped-down jeep with a standard transmission. The parallel parking lesson was easy: "Just avoid the elephants," recalls Craig. But partway through the session, the engine sputtered and died just as they noticed a pack of lions nearby. "Marc was literally kicking the engine to get it started again," says Craig.

Brotherly love

Marc was also always available by phone or e-mail to offer Craig advice on speeches, grant applications or media appearances. Craig remembers calling Marc from Chicago right after his first appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to tell him his famous host had promised substantial financial support live on national television. Craig could hear this loud thumping sound on the other end of the phone. "I said, ‘Marc, what's that noise?' He said it was him jumping up and down."

Craig and Marc remain each other's biggest supporters, and their latest joint endeavour – Me to We: Turning Self-Help on Its Head, the book the two have cowritten, is their most ambitious collaboration to date, and one that they unabashedly hope will spark a social movement. Since Craig started FTC as a child with other kids, detractors have argued that the organization's work wasn't appropriate for children, that it took away from their youth to be so immersed in the major problems of the world. But the critics missed the main point: the kids were being driven by the success of their projects and they were having a good time at the serious business of helping others. Now Marc and Craig want to help adults learn the same lesson. "This is what we do for fun," says Craig. "It's not a job. We do it because we love it."

Children freeing Children
Free the Children

FTC is an international children's organization that has involved more than one million children and youth in its projects. Youth members have raised funds to construct more than 400 primary schools in the rural areas of developing nations, providing education to more than 35,000 children. They have also distributed more than 175,000 school and health kits in 38 countries and medical supplies to needy families in 13 countries. FTC currently supports drinkable water projects, health clinics, alternative income cooperatives and primary schools in 21 developing nations.

The organization's advocacy campaigns have led Canada, Mexico and Italy to pass legislation to better protect sexually abused children. It has lobbied corporations to adopt labels for child-labour-free products and was selected in 2001 by the United Nations and The Office of the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict to be the lead nongovernmental organization coordinating youth outreach for the decade of peace and nonviolence toward children.

Leaders Today
Teams of trainers visit schools, communities and religious groups to host programs that give youth the leadership, teamwork, communication and self-confidence skills needed to become active global citizens. The program has provided leadership training to more than 300,000 young people throughout North America. It operates summer and March-break trips for youth interested in volunteering in India, Nicaragua and Thailand, as well as leadership/volunteer retreats to its own centres in Kenya and Arizona.

For more information on these two efforts, visit and

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Community & Current Events

The accidental activists: Craig and Marc Kielburger