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At 17, labour activist Craig Kielburger looks positively grizzled compared to the sweet-faced 13-year-old boy who first gained fame in the mid-nineties for his fight against Third World child labour.

He was at the World Economic Forum at Davos last week, where he was invited to speak about child labour, even though, "he's the youngest person there by 40 years," as his brother Marc puts it. Davos must like him -- it's his second time there.

But the irony is that, at 17, he is still too young for some. Although he has just won a long-running libel suit against Saturday Night magazine, he won't get any of the $319,000 the magazine is paying out until he reaches 18. The court will hold on to the money until then.

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Mr. Kielburger's critics have never been able to articulate why they attack him, why they deem him too young even to try to do any of the things he has done as capably as any adult: win media attention on behalf of his charity, Free the Children, help thousands of children directly and millions of children indirectly, sue to achieve moral vindication and cash compensation.

It's true that society, run by the middle-aged and the old, doesn't like the young unless they're harmless distractions. When Mariah Carey made her addled stand on the problems of underdeveloped countries -- "Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff" -- nobody blinked. And they didn't say vicious and untrue things about her mother, the way they did about Theresa Kielburger.

It seems to be more a matter of right-wing versus left wing. Two years ago, The Globe and Mail reported (not on April 1, either) on one proposal in Alberta's charter-school movement. It was a Charter School of Commerce, publicly funded and privately run, with a curriculum from a Florida firm.

"The children, who would start at the school as young as 8, would wear ties and white-collared shirts. Polished dress shoes would be mandatory. Briefcases encouraged. Jeans outlawed. Hair would be styled conservatively, in accordance with business practice. For literature, the students would read résumés, memos and business reports. For math, there would be mortgage tables, real-estate deals and stock-market movements."

So mouthy kids would be okay, as long as they dressed old and talked like a united alternative.

Mr. Kielburger was never like that. When he was 13, he was a normal sweatshirt-wearing kid in Thornhill, Ont., with a dog named Muffin, two teachers for parents and a keen interest in comics, basketball and TV. He greatly admired Marc, an athlete and a good public speaker who, significantly, spent much of his free time campaigning for environmental protection.

"Just go up to people and speak slowly and clearly," Marc advised him. Craig was 7 at the time.

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In an interview, Marc, 22, an ex-Harvard student now headed for Oxford, is uncomfortable with the term "gifted" being applied to him or his brother. But when he is read a list of the characteristics of gifted children (courtesy of the National Foundation for Gifted and Creative Children, in the U.S.), he concedes a few. High energy. Will resist authority if not democratically oriented. Compassionate. May become frustrated because of big ideas and not having resources or people to assist him, which he modifies to "will seek resources or people to help him carry them out."

As Craig Kielburger recounts in Free the Children, his book on child labour written with Kevin Major, his course was set early. " 'Someday I will give speeches,' I would tell my mother."

And he did, and does, to great effect, having noticed that whenever the mistreatment of children is discussed, it's not the voices of other children that are heard.

But he is still a kid, his brother emphasizes. "He likes having fun, he hangs out with girls." In other words, as Ms. Carey, belter and social activist, would put it, after a lot of rehearsal, he is not, like, a total buzzkill.

Boomers weren't like Craig Kielburger when they were young kids; they were mostly wallowing in pleasure in a world that worked better than it does now.

But Mr. Kielburger is part of what has been labelled the echo generation, the children of boomers. There are 6.5 million of them in Canada, born between 1980 and 1995. They are said to be a self-confident cohort, utterly comfortable with technology and colour-blind after attending school with Canada's continuing wave of immigrants. Their social activism doesn't come from stony ground, but from the sixties idealism that brushed their parents' lives. For instance, before her marriage, Theresa Kielburger once ran a drop-in centre for street kids; Fred Kielburger worked at a Jean Vanier-inspired home for brain-damaged people.

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Free the Children was set up in 1995 by Mr. Kielburger and his classmates after he read about the murder of a young Pakistani carpet-weaver, Iqbal Masih, who was campaigning against child labour after having been rescued from bondage at age four. Among many other successes, the organization has raised money for primary schools in countries such as Nicaragua and India and for rehabilitation centres and alternative-income projects when child labour ends.

Melanie Moorthy, a lawyer who now works with Free the Children, was 27 when she met Mr. Kielburger. She expected someone "who was 13 going on 43. But he was 13 going on 14." He was a regular kid, she emphasizes, albeit an articulate and strikingly altruistic one.

Even so, how did he manage to survive his initiation into the realities of children's lives in the Third World? His trip to Asia at age 12, in the company of a 24-year-old friend and guide, Alam Rahman, would have been alarming for the most hardened adult. (Mr. Kielburger attends a school with flexible rules on absences and yes, he gets good grades.)

Most Canadians, with their deeply embedded notions of hygiene, privacy and safety, go into shock when they arrive in Calcutta. And that's just the airport. Maybe only a young teenager can handle it with aplomb, as Mr. Kielburger did. The stories recounted in Free the Children could scarcely be sicker. In Bangkok, Mr. Kielburger saw boys his own age wearing white thongs with a number pinned on as they lined up on a spotlit stage and were ordered by customers as if they were a drink.

In Kathmandu, he found a tiny girl selling fruit on the street, braving long hours, a baking sun and a black fog of smoke and carbon monoxide, all the while caring for her one-year-old sister. In Madras, he met an eight-year-old girl, bruised from beatings, who sat in a nest of used needles, sorting them with her bare hands and walking shoeless on the sticky medical waste that dripped from them.

Children cost nothing, so they are worth nothing.

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This is the heart of the Third-World-based economic system that the West has devised in the 1990s. Its symptoms are detailed by Mr. Kielburger book, but its emergence is tracked in Naomi Klein's new and perfectly timed No Logo.

Ms. Klein describes a convergence of events and ideas -- companies producing brands rather than things, a stock-market explosion, the growth of multinationals, and the disappearance of the Job -- that links up with the horrors described by Mr. Kielburger.

Here's the argument being made not just by them, but by culture-jammers, Adbusters magazine and groups like United Students Against Sweatshops. We are living in a new Gilded Age, a century after the last one, where millions of millionaires buy splendid mansions, tear them down and build bigger ones, and where people like us snap up the cheap goods made by small hands.

When we live this way, we perform an amazing trick: We ruin the lives of children overseas, we render their parents unemployable, we close our own factories and then we wonder why our kids can only get part-time jobs as Gap greeters.

It's a chain. We're part of it, but someone else is yanking it.

Clearly, Mr. Kielburger did not set out to be part of a worldwide battle against globalization's downside, although it turned out that way. Neither did he expect to be attacked and libelled by Saturday Night magazine, but he was.

The details of the lawsuit, read from documents filed with the court, make it clear what a heavy personal price he has paid for sticking his neck out.

"There were a lot of tears," he has said. After writer Isabel Vincent wrote in her 1996 Saturday Night profile that donations went "directly to the Kielburger family" and were not properly accounted for -- which was not true -- he considered withdrawing from Free the Children in order to keep it alive.

He was tormented by the article's insults directed at his family. As well, in his statement of claim, he described the magazine's efforts to make him pose for a cover photograph -- he would be standing on top of a statue intended to depict Asian children -- that would make him look arrogant, patronizing and self-aggrandizing. At age 13, he was wise enough to decline.

Mr. Kielburger was lucky in his lawyers. When Saturday Night agreed to settle the lawsuit and pay him the $319,000, he had already run up legal bills of $213,453, according to court documents. Lawyer Robert Rueter did not ask for his fee until the matter was settled, four years later, and he then discounted his services by 40 per cent so that his youthful client would receive sufficient compensation. Thus, Mr. Kielburger will eventually receive $175,000.

It's clear that the average Canadian has almost no capacity to sue for libel. "It's a good thing [Mr. Kielburger]won," says University of Toronto law professor Denise Reaume. "Because if he hadn't, he'd have to pay those fees."

Indeed, when the media complains about libel chill, she says, they're talking about "when players in the political or economic sphere, who are supposed to be big enough boys and girls to have a thick skin about criticism, turn around and use this as a means of trying to silence opponents."

The problem for someone who is not rich is not just their inability to sue for libel, but to achieve anything at all in the courts. "You may want to sue a magazine or you may want to sue GM, who you claim has injured you. It doesn't much matter if you don't have enough money for a lawyer."

And yet, she says, "A case like this one shows why it is crucial to be able to allow people to protect their reputation."

Mr. Kielburger has long kept a poster in his room that says: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

The story of what he and his family have gone through since April 1995, when he first read of Iqbal Masih's death, does make any sensible person wonder if it's worth raising your head above the parapet, as Mr. Kielburger did. Tens of thousands of children worldwide are grateful that he did.

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