What a sight it was. More than 900 student delegates from Ontario’s private and public schools packed into Laidlaw Hall, along with a complete cross-section of Canada’s national broadcast and print media. Reporters camped out in the aisles and the back pews, camera and laptops poised. Hundreds more community members and parents were ushered into the Upper School’s old gym, the overflow room, bringing the audience close to 1,300 strong.
After months of logistical and technological wrangling, it went off without a hitch. Edward Snowden’s live-broadcast keynote to the World Affairs Conference, delivered via a Google Hangouts link from his exile in Russia, was a massive achievement for WAC organizers, especially chair Conor Healy who worked with Snowden’s lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York—and his own superpowers of persuasion—to convince Snowden to appear. Huge effort was also made by WAC director of registration and media Nicholas Elder, and faculty advisers Alan Chan and Reem Aweida-Parsons. The event marked the first time Snowden had spoken to a student audience and his first live broadcast ever in Canada.
The former National Security Agency contractor’s key message was that global citizens, including Canadians, should be vigilant when their government tries to pass new laws with a rationale of protecting its citizens from terrorism. In a timely twist, Snowden spoke just days after the CBC broke the news about Levitation, the huge Canadian online survelliance program. The story’s source was Snowden’s leaked documents about Canada.
“Once we let these powers get rolling it’s very difficult to stop that pull though,” said Snowden. “So I would say that we need to use extraordinary scrutiny in every society, in every country, in every city, in every state to make sure that the laws we live under are the ones we truly want and truly need.”
Joining Snowden from Brazil by livefeed was Glenn Greenwald, the journalist entrusted with the story. He told the conference that Canadians have a greater chance of dying from being struck by lightning or slipping in a bathtub than from a terrorist attack.
After the conversation, students lined the hall to ask questions and in an especially great moment, Healy and Sophie Mehta, one of the Branksome Hall conference organizers, took a selfie with Snowden on stage where Healy had been moderating the address.
In terms of media reach, Snowden’s keynote was covered by all of Canada’s major media outlets, including the Globe and Mail, CBC, Canadian Press and CTV. Conor Healy had two early morning appearances on CBC’s Metro Morning and on Global Television’s The Morning Show. Close to 1,400 people tuned in to the livestream of the keynote address as it happened, with 10,000 people tuned into the replay by the next day.
As well, the story inspired countless conversations, with over 500 people commenting on one CBC article alone. On UCC’s Facebook page, content related to WAC inspired 981 likes, comments and shares, and a reach of almost 33,000. Our website received more traffic in one day than it normally gets in a month.
Not all feedback was unanimously positive however. Some community members posted in a UCC-moderated forum, questioning the validity of inviting as polarizing a figure as Snowden to speak, calling him a “fugitive” and “criminal.” Many questioned UCC’s decision to provide a forum for Snowden, suggesting it posed a potential terrorism risk. Others wondered why we didn’t have a counterpoint speaker if the WAC’s mandate was indeed to offer true debate.
Surprisingly, one unlikely supporter is Canadian Forces veteran and cyber-defence specialist Hassan Khan ’01. “I’m only too aware of the realities of information protection and what’s needed to keep our citizens and soldiers safe,” says Khan. “That said, we serve in order to protect the fundamental values of Canadian democracy, including ensuring accountability of our national institutions to the public that they serve. Edward Snowden is now a central part of our global discussion on how to balance the need for security against preserving our core values; and it is a discussion that must be had.”