Controversy erupts for Suzanne Rogers after philanthropist posts photo with Trump
Two members of the advisory group at Ryerson University's Rogers Fashion Institute have resigned
Members of the fashion industry are decrying a prominent Toronto philanthropist and the university she backs after she posted a photo of herself and her family posing with former U.S. president Donald Trump at a gathering in Florida.
Suzanne Rogers posted a series of photos in an Instagram story on Saturday, which appear to have been taken at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, as first reported by Canadaland. The posts appear to show Rogers and her family, including her husband, Rogers Communications and Toronto Blue Jays chairman, Edward Rogers, dining with Trump.
One of the pictures shows the Rogers family posing with the former U.S. president with the caption, "A special way to end the night!"
Online critics quickly condemned Rogers for posing with Trump, with many saying he shares opposing values to those rooted in the fashion industry and its community members, including diversity and inclusion.
Rogers Communications did not respond to interview requests from CBC News. The Toronto Blue Jays also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Third-year Ryerson fashion student Isabella Papagiannis said the post exemplifies privilege amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected vulnerable and low-income people.
"It shows the privilege of the situation," she said. "I think it shows a lack of compassion for everything that's happening."
"I felt like it wasn't a good representation of Canada as well as Toronto fashion," said Michael Zoffranieri, a graduate of Ryerson University's School of Fashion and Toronto-based designer and owner of clothing label ZOFF.
Ryerson University is also facing a wave of backlash for its handling of the criticism being levied at Rogers, who is an honorary patron of the university's Suzanne Rogers Institute of Fashion (SRFI) — a fellowship program devised to support emerging designers.
In a since-deleted statement on its Instagram page, Ryerson's fashion school called for "dialogue" with Rogers about what it describes as Trump's harmful impact on members of the fashion community.
"Our curriculum and culture at the School of Fashion actively works to challenge, resist and undo the values, structures and practices of white supremacy, exclusion and discrimination that we feel Trump actively enforced and executed during his time as U.S. Present," the statement reads.
"We invite Suzanne Rogers to enter into dialogue with our faculty, staff and students to discuss the impact that Trump and his community has had on further harming members of the fashion industry who are low income, Black, brown, Asian, disabled, Indigenous, trans, queer and/or part of other systemically marginalized communities."
A short while later, the original post was deleted and replaced with a new statement, noting the original post did not reflect Ryerson's views. A disclaimer in the caption of the new post says the statement was written by Ryerson University.
"We do not believe social media is the appropriate platform to judge the actions of others," the new statement said.
A barrage of comments from students, faculty and alumni filled the new post, expressing dismay at the replacement.
Student Meg O'Connell wrote, "Wow this is really disappointing as a Ryerson fashion student. This really makes me question the education that I'm paying for."
Ryerson professor and director of the SRFI Robert Ott confirmed to CBC News that two advisory group members have resigned in the wake of the controversy, including Hudson's Bay vice president Tyler Franch and creative communications consultant Lisa Tant.
Rogers helped launch the SRFI in 2016 with a $1 million donation from the Edward and Suzanne Rogers Foundation — a donation that was matched in November 2020, extending funding for the fashion institute for another five years.
The Rogers family has been one of Ryerson's "most generous supporters," according to the university's website, contributing a total of $34 million over the years.
Ryerson's values called into question
In a statement to CBC News, Ryerson said that faculty are able to discuss and criticize both the university and "wider society.
"However, if they decide to use institutional channels, such as departmental social media accounts, proper procedures must be followed," the statement reads.
The university did not respond to specific questions about the photo Rogers posted of her family with Trump.
Rachel Romu, a model and advocate for disability justice, says seeing Rogers and Trump together was jarring.
"Those unaffected by oppressive policies or ideas due to their socio-economic status fail to see the genuine harm marginalized communities experience once those ideas circulate amongst supporters," Romu said, citing Trump mocking a reporter with a disability. Romu uses a cane due to spinal surgeries and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Many, including Zoffranieri, are now calling for a town hall to discuss the matter with Ryerson community members and officials, a move originally recommended in the fashion school's statement.
No 'kind of relationship' with Trump, Rogers responds
In a statement, Rogers says: "I have always believed in equality, diversity, inclusiveness, and respect for all, and I have worked to that end all my life. They are important in all aspects of society, especially in fashion. I have been honoured to do a small part to help some fashion students and alumni get a chance to learn, create and have some help to start a business in Canada. The Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute, at Ryerson University, is a true reflection of diversity in Canadian fashion.
Rogers said she has no relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump whatsoever.
"I do not have any kind of relationship with Donald Trump, good or otherwise. I had never met him before that night. Our family's interaction with President Trump was mere seconds at the end of a dinner, as we were leaving. No political statement, on any policy, was intended by the photograph," she said in the statement.
"Taking and posting it was done without considering the false assumptions and implications that would be made about my personal beliefs. I regret that my actions caused anyone to question my values or commitment to the communities and causes my family and I hold so dear."