The release of the Panama Papers shows that the role of whistleblowers is more important than ever, Edward Snowden told a sold out crowd in Vancouver Tuesday night.

The NSA whistleblower appeared via live weblink at the SFU-hosted event, which took place at Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

 Although the event was scheduled months ago, Snowden's speech in Vancouver was timely, coming on the heels of the release of the Panama Papers that has embarrassed politicians and businessmen, exposed global corruption and tax evasion, and led to the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland.

"I think that this shows more than ever, the role of the whistleblower in a free society has become not only desirable but vital," said Snowden.

He told the Vancouver audience the Panama Papers incident demonstrates how people with power are able to follow a different set of rules than everyone else and how dangerous that is for democracy.

"This reveals that one of the founding premises of democracy, which is that one law applies equally to both the powerful and the powerless, is beginning to change," he said.

"The most privileged and the most powerful members of society are operating by a different set of rules that exempts them not only from the same laws to which we are held, not only the same standard of behaviours to which we are held, but they don't even pay the same taxes."

Queen Elizabeth Theatre Edward Snowden talk

Ticket holders went to Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver Tuesday night to hear Edward Snowden speak. (CBC)

Snowden says the public is increasingly transparent to authorities due to mass surveillance and that it is only fair for officials to be equally transparent to the public.

"There is a lesson here. One of these is access to information is vital."

Controversial figure

Snowden is a controversial figure. Documents he leaked to the Guardian newspaper in 2013 revealed the U.S. government had programs in place to spy on almost everything that hundreds of millions of people do online, including emails, social networking posts, online chat histories, phone calls and texts.

Hailed by some as a civil rights hero, Snowden has also been condemned as a traitor who compromised national security. He is wanted by the U.S. government on espionage charges.

Snowden has said he would be willing to return to the U.S. if he could be guaranteed a fair trial but doesn't believe that would be possible.

He appeared in Vancouver Tuesday via video link from Russia where he was granted asylum. A panel discussion featuring experts from SFU and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association was moderated by senior CBC correspondent and host, Laura Lynch.

With files from Wanyee Li