Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, urges Northeastern graduate students to become ‘the greatest generation of this century’

A woman in Commencement regalia speaks into a microphone.
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, spoke of the opportunities created by these calamitous times. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern’s 2023 commencement exercises. For more information, including a livestream, photos and live coverage throughout the day, visit our dedicated commencement page.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance, wove together the themes of resilient achievement and courageous ambition during her speech to graduate students at Northeastern University’s 121st commencement on Sunday at Fenway Park in Boston.

Freeland laid out harsh global realities of which her audience was well-aware: The ongoing assault on democracies by authoritarian regimes, the empowered ascent of the ultra-rich at the expense of the middle class, the rising seas and accompanying dangers imposed by climate change. 

She was intent on inspiring the graduates to take—and make—a stand. 

“With the education you have received at this exceptional school, you have earned the opportunity to shape the future—our planet’s, your countries’ and your own,” Freeland said. “I believe that all of you can—all of you must—become the Greatest Generation of this century.”

She was referring to a title earned in the 1940s by the generation that fought and won World War II—including, she said, her grandfather.

“Toni Morrison said that ‘if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” said Freeland, quoting the late American author. “Our shelves are filled with the tales of people who were once young graduates just like you—young women and men poised between hope and anxiety as they prepared to step into their adult lives. They are filled with the tales of those who rose, in their own ways, to the challenges history handed them.

“And that is what I am confident you too will do.”

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, Board of Trustees Vice Chair Alan McKim and Toronto campus Dean and CEO Aliza Lakhani presented an honorary degree of doctor of public service to Freeland, who has received numerous honors for diplomacy on behalf of democracy and human rights since the election of Canada’s Liberal government in 2015. 

“The newest member of our Northeastern community is one of Canada’s finest leaders and a defender of human rights and social progress,” Aoun said. “She is both fearless and compassionate in her approach to policy and diplomacy. And as Canada’s first woman deputy of finance, she blazes new opportunities for women everywhere.”

A warm blue sky embraced the graduates and their loved ones who gathered across the outfield and in the stands of the 111-year-old ballpark as Freeland, a former journalist who served assignments in Ukraine and Russia, focused on the opportunities and responsibilities attendant to this calamitous era.

Freeland has helped drive the Canadian government’s opposition to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Her 2012 book, “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” was an international best-seller and prize winner. 

Parts of her speech were delivered in French (she also speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Italian) as she reminded the students that their commencement was a highly personal moment linked inextricably to the larger global issues.

“Our time of tranquility is over,” Freeland said. “We are living through what President [Joe] Biden, on a visit to my country in March, called an inflection point: a time of transformation, he said, that comes once every five or six generations.”

Freeland referred to climate change, the relentless efforts of authoritarian regimes and the concerns of parents who wonder if the future will be more prosperous than the present on her way to raising an ultimate question: Does capitalist democracy still work? 

“This is a time when we are being called to answer some very big questions,” Freeland said. “But I do not think that makes it, as Robert Kaplan has argued, a tragic age.

“I believe this age of upheaval has every possibility of becoming a time future historians will describe as the Renaissance of Democracy: an age of renewal of our civilization’s fundamental values and of its fundamental promise.

“Indeed, I believe this will be the essential work of your time, your era.”

It is true, she said, that authoritarian regimes have attacked and undermined democratic institutions, that the middle class has suffered at the hands of the global plutocracy and that the oceans have warmed as species have died out.

“Now is the time for democracy to fight back,” Freeland said, and she cited the example of Canada’s iconic hockey star. “It is time, as the great Wayne Gretzky said, to skate to where the puck is going and to build a capitalist democracy that works in the 21st century.

“And I know we can do that because we are already starting to.”

She cited the courageous fight of Ukrainians who are fighting back stubbornly against the Russian invasion. She cited a universal $10-a-day child care program in Canada that is helping women to raise families while investing in careers. She spoke of her country’s $120 billion clean industry policy as well the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act that she said were bringing down emissions and creating jobs.

“Coming of age in a time of change must be frightening and it would be quite natural for each or any of you to respond to the challenges ahead by turning away from the world—by turning inward to a life focused chiefly on the self,” Freeland said. “Don’t do that! It is a hard thing to come of age at a time of upheaval, to be sure—but it is also a privilege.”

She acknowledged that no one can know exactly how this battle for the planet and its values will play out. 

“But there is one thing I know to be true,” Freeland said. “You cannot opt out of a time of change.

“Like it or not,” Freeland added, “you are graduating into that inflection point—and as some of the very best-educated people on our planet, you have the rare and precious opportunity to shape it.”

The morning ceremony was adorned with performances of music and dance amid a variety of speeches. 

Kristine Nnemka Umeh, the student speaker (and double Husky) who earned a computer science master’s degree from Northeastern, spoke of the versatile skill set that she and her fellow graduates had acquired.

Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, joined Paresh Kumar, a 2014 doctor of pharmacy graduate, in welcoming the newest graduates to Northeastern’s alumni community. 

A doubleheader of Northeastern celebrations would conclude with the undergraduate ceremony late Sunday afternoon, featuring a speech by serial entrepreneur and e-commerce pioneer Mariam Naficy, the founder of Minted.

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.