More than a thousand Toronto high school students are hanging out on Monday evening – with Edward Snowden. The fugitive whistleblower will appear live for 90 minutes via video chat to speak and take students' questions at Toronto's Upper Canada College's World Affairs Conference (technical difficulties scuttled efforts to have him show up as a hologram), along with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Mr. Snowden, who exposed massive surveillance by government spy agencies, accepted an invitation from Conor Healy, an 18-year-old UCC student with a talent for singing opera and a knack for math, who chairs the conference.
How did the idea of inviting Snowden first come to you?
It was recommended to me by Upper Canada College's alumni relations department that I meet with a guy named Jameel Jaffer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) while I was in New York in August. He's the head of the democracy project there. I was basically asking him if he wanted to speak, or maybe if he could connect me with someone like Glenn Greenwald. Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would be able to put me in touch with Edward Snowden. What [Jaffer] said to me is, "The best I can do is pass on a letter and make sure he reads it, and if there's a way you can make it distinct from the 50 other invitations he gets that day, then try your best."
How did you make it distinct?
Well, to a certain extent I was lucky. He hasn't spoken to high school students before and I think he was looking for an opportunity. But what I think came through is how much I thought the community would be fascinated by the opportunity to listen to him. I have peers who are right-leaning and left-leaning, I have peers who think he's a traitor, and others who think he's a hero. But everybody agrees the debate on privacy is the debate we're having, and he is the foremost authority on one particular side of that debate.
What's your impression of Snowden and what he's done?
It was complicated, to be honest. My general inclination is that I think he acted responsibly. And he started a debate worth having. But given how divisive he is, it's something I think a lot about. [Inviting him] didn't really come out of an admiration for him, so to speak. It was just from a desire to expose people to an incredible perspective which, undeniably, he has.
You call him 'divisive.' Why?
Let me put it this way: If you asked my dad, he would have him drawn and quartered. I think partially it's a generational thing. Often the people who don't support him and don't care too much about what's being done to our privacy are older or of a different sort of mindset than I think is espoused by a lot of youth.
How did you set this up?
Interestingly, the harder part was getting the school's approval. I had known he had accepted to speak in September, and the school really did their due diligence in ensuring that we wouldn't get ourselves into any legal trouble, that we wouldn't attract undue criticism. Ultimately, after having me circle around the principal's office daily encouraging him to allow us to take this opportunity, they let us have him speak.
How does he communicate?
I communicate to him through a lawyer at the ACLU. And in fact, the first time I spoke to him face to face was [Thursday] afternoon, through Google Hangouts, actually. We were testing the technology for Monday. And that was quite an experience.
What did you talk about?
We talked about logistics to start. And then we talked for almost 40 minutes about what we wanted to hear from him. And in fact one [question] was, why is he divisive? It's a really complicated question.
Why do you want high school students to have a forum with him?
They're hearing opinions on a topic that I think informs their own desire to seek knowledge on issues that affect them. Some call Snowden a hero, but he also was just a concerned citizen. I'm not saying he's going to inspire our delegates to become whistleblowers, but it certainly inspires something, and a greater recognition of your responsibilities as a participant in society.
This interview has been edited and condensed.