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Craig Kielburger, left, hands the Olympic Flame off to his brother Marc as the Olympic Torch Relay makes its way down Yonge Street in Toronto, in December 2009. (Darren Calabrese/ The Canadian Press)Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Craig and Marc Kielburger, activists for children's rights, have been selected as Transformational Canadians.


In 1995, at the age of 12, Thornhill, Ont., native Craig Kielburger set out to make the world a better place for children. Outraged by the murder of a 12-year-old Pakistani labourer named Iqbal Masih, he and a group of schoolmates searched for an activist organization that would welcome them - and found nothing.

"A lot of adults used to say, 'Wait until you're older, until you get a good job, until you become an adult - then you can change things,'" Mr. Kielburger recalls during an October visit to Vancouver. "We used to hear that all the time."

So Mr. Kielburger and his older brother Marc founded the charity Free the Children, which is now active in 45 countries. The boyish Kielburgers are in Vancouver for We Day, an annual Free the Children gathering that also takes place in Montreal and Toronto. During the October 15 event at Rogers Arena, some 18,000 local kids enjoy speeches by activists Al Gore and Jesse Jackson - and performances by rockers Barenaked Ladies and Hedley.

"Changing the world is possible, but it's also cool now for young people," says Mr. Kielburger, 27. "Those two things are huge shifts."

Toronto-based Free the Children - which describes itself as the world's biggest network of children helping children through education - is a remarkable success. It now has more than 3,500 Youth in Action groups in schools throughout Canada and the U.S., and each year some 350,000 children participate in its speaking tours and leadership training programs.

Overseas, Free the Children has built more than 650 schools in nations such as Ecuador, India and Sierra Leone. Through micro-loans and alternative income programs, it has helped 30,000 women become economically self-sufficient. More than 60 percent of Free the Children's annual budget comes from youths, says 33-year-old Marc Kielburger. "We receive Christmas money, Hanukkah money, Tooth Fairy money, birthday money."

While growing Free the Children, the Kielburgers pursued complementary educations that have helped them further the organization's goals. Craig has an executive MBA from York University's Schulich School of Business, while Harvard graduate Marc earned his law degree on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he specialized in human rights law. The Kielburgers have also co-written three books, including the 2006 New York Times bestseller Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World.

The pair, whose many honours include the Order of Canada, attribute much of Free the Children's progress to their willingness to work with mentors and partners. One longtime supporter is Oprah Winfrey, who has given them airtime and funding for almost a decade. In 2006, the Kielburgers and Ms. Winfrey launched O Ambassadors, a schools-based program that has raised more than $1 million for international development projects.

Three years ago, the brothers established a social enterprise called Me to We - with guidance from Canadian-born billionaire and philanthropist Jeff Skoll. Marc Kielburger says Me to We - which sells ethical products and services such as organic clothing and carbon-neutral volunteer trips - is helping redefine the traditional view of charity. "It's trying to empower you not only as a philanthropist but as a consumer to influence social change."

Fifty percent of Me to We's profits go to Free the Children, in an effort to drive the organization's already low administration rate of nine cents on the dollar down to zero. The rest goes straight back into the business.

The Kielburgers have also eschewed traditional charity with their grassroots development work. Craig Kielburger explains that Free the Children's Adopt a Village initiative has four pillars: clean water, medical services, schools and alternative income programs.

Besides empowering people economically, the income programs create a sense of ownership because the local community must use a portion of its earnings to cover repairs and other operational costs, he says. "We exit the community - typically after about five years - with the knowledge that those projects will continue to run well beyond us."

As Craig Kielburger notes, he and Marc set a goal early on to put themselves and Free the Children out of business. "We want be able to address change in a way that we no longer need to do this."

Craig Kielburger on Free the Children's early struggles

We never set out to start a charity. One of the first things that we did was call a very well-known charity and say, 'We're 12-year-olds who want to help. How can we make a difference?' And the response we heard was, 'Do you know where your parents keep the credit card?' And that was the sentiment we kept hearing -'You can fundraise a little, you can help support a charity,' but really, that was it.

Marc Kielburger on leading the next generation

We once asked Nelson Mandela, 'How did you do it? How did you have the tenacity and the focus to bring South Africa from where it was to where it is today?' And he stopped and he said, 'I led my sheep from behind.' And that really resonated with us….Our leadership opportunities are very consensus-based, and we seek to empower people to make decisions so that they can be the best leaders of themselves.

When you look at the Millennial generation…they want to contribute, so meaning and purpose is really important to them. It's important as a leader to tap into meaning and purpose, and to make sure that people feel a sense of connection to community, meaning and purpose. If you can do that as leader with this generation, you have an amazing ability to influence them in a very positive way.

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