Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire is building a new army.
In his first recruitment pitch at the University of Toronto on Friday, a day after Human Rights Day, he asked 750 high school students to enlist in his fight to eradicate the use of child soldiers. According to Lt.-Gen. Dallaire, digital natives like those in his audience are his only hope for victory because they know how to use the modern tools that can make their voices heard.
"Those [Twitter, Facebook, Skype]are the bombs," said Emmanuel Jal, a former Sudanese child soldier turned rapper who performed at the event. "Those are the modern tools. Those are the modern weapons. One kid alone can speak to up to 100,000."
But those weapons can work against a cause as easily as they can work for it, and Lt.-Gen. Dallaire's campaign, christened Zero Force, is competing for the attention of a generation already inundated with messages.
"It's like there's so much information you don't know what to focus on," said John Soares, a Grade 11 student from Western Technical-Commercial School. "You're stuck with yourself not knowing what to do."
That's why Lt.-Gen. Dallaire and his team tried to make their campaign different. Bake sales and bleeding hearts are not on Zero Force's agenda; action is the order of the day and martial language and metaphors abound on the campaign's website. You don't join Zero Force, you enlist. You don't spread awareness, you recruit. And you don't volunteer, you serve. Instead of buttons or stickers, those who've donated to Zero Force get to hang dog tags around their necks.
"We did not want this to feel like a typical advocacy, or sort of soft, kind of NGO campaign," said Phillip Haid, CEO of Public Inc., the firm Lt.-Gen. Dallaire worked with to make his campaign a reality.
The campaign's goals are framed in military terms. With 250,000 child soldiers in the world, he says that the same number of activists, or a "force to force" situation, will never bring victory. To win his fight, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire says he needs 10 times that number.
"How you win the war is by annihilating the enemy, by eradicating the enemy; and that is overwhelming force."
He also speaks about young people "getting their boots dirty" by travelling to the places affected by conflict. It is through these connections, whether through travel, Skype, Facebook or Twitter, that Lt.-Gen. Dallaire hopes young Canadians can show a glimmer of hope to their peers trapped by conflict.
But according to Daniela Mendez, a Grade 10 teacher from Central Tech, the biggest obstacle to getting teenagers involved is they often see activism as uncool. She remembers one student coming to her after a pitch for an environmental club and earnestly saying, "no offence Miss, but I wouldn't join that."
To help overcome this stigma, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire was joined on Friday by two rappers; Jal, and Toronto native Shaun Boothe.
Mr. Boothe understands teenagers who think they're too cool to care because he says in high school he was one of them. That's why Zero Force tried to find speakers kids look up to.
"If Shaun Boothe comes and he's talking about these issues then, as silly as it seems, that has an effect," he said.
But for Jal, even with all the music, marketing and technology, it was Lt.-Gen. Dallaire's faith in his audience that was truly inspiring.
"It will be exciting to the youth because they are being trusted to do something," he said. "We don't trust the youth, but the same young people are being trusted by warlords to go to war - and they actually win battles."
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