Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Giller Prize, dead at 87

Canadian literature has lost one of its most beloved champions. Jack Rabinovitch died on Sunday in Toronto, as a result of injuries suffered in a fall at his home earlier this week. He was 87.
Principal Suzanne Fortier, Jack Rabinovitch and Provost Christopher Manfredi, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts, at the announcement of the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist in Moyse Hall in 2014. / Photo: Owen Egan

By McGill Reporter Staff

Canadian literature has lost one of its most beloved champions. Jack Rabinovitch died on Sunday in Toronto, as a result of injuries suffered in a severe fall at his home earlier this week.

Born, raised and educated in in Montreal, Rabinovitch came from humble beginnings, sometimes joking that he learned his math skills selling newspapers with his father at the corner of Ontario St. and St. Laurent Blvd.

Graduating from McGill in 1952 with an Honours BA in English, where his love for literature was instilled, Rabinovitch tried his hand at a number of jobs, including as a cub reporter, speechwriter, food retailing and distribution executive and subsequently as an independent builder and real estate developer. In 1972, he joined Trizec Corporation and was appointed Executive Vice-President in 1986. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Edper Group of companies and Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.

As much success as Rabinovitch had in the private sector, his most famous contribution to Canadian culture took place in 1994, when he founded the Giller Prize in 1994 to honour the memory of his late wife, Doris Giller.

“When my wife passed away in April 1993 at age 62 I was quite devastated, to say the least. After a few months I decided that she should not go gently into that last good night without some special tribute. Everybody who knew her knew she was an exceptional person and an exceptional literary journalist,” Rabinovitch told the McGill Reporter in a 2014 interview.

“I met with my friend Mordecai Richler, at Woody’s, a pub on Bishop Street in Montreal in August of that year. I told him I wanted to start a literary fiction prize in Doris’s name and I wanted him to help. Mordecai knew and adored Doris. He agreed immediately. Mordecai suggested that we include David Staines, an eminent English professor and scholar, and, over chopped liver at Moishes on The Main, the Giller Prize took form. David then suggested we include Alice Munro in the founding group, and after Alice agreed, we went public. We called it the Giller Prize because we considered it Doris’s prize.”

At the time, Canada’s only major literary prize was the Governor General’s Award and the establishment of the more lucrative Giller Prize quickly created a rivalry. “[The Giller] isn’t a government or corporate prize,” Rabinovitch told The Reporter. “We’re in the very fortunate position of not having to be politically correct, or beholden to any institution or individual about how we run this show. Our jury panel, a group of celebrated thinkers, writers and critics, read more than 150 books each year to come to a difficult choice of, at first 10-12 books and authors, then five and finally a winner. We only tell them: ‘Choose the best book of Canadian fiction of the year.’”

In 2005, the Giller Prize teamed up with Scotiabank to create the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is the first co-sponsorship for Canada’s richest literary award for fiction. With total prize money now reaching $140,000, it has become, in the estimation of veteran critic Robert Fulford, “the most celebrated arts prize in the country.”

In 2014, the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced at Moyse Hall, only the second time the announcement was made outside of Toronto. “Coming to McGill… and announcing our longlist in the Arts Building is like coming home,” Rabinovitch told The Reporter. “McGill is the right place. Doris and I are Montrealers. McGill is my Alma Mater. The prize actually took shape here in Montreal and the Giller Gala, the prize night, is like a Montreal party. Additionally, I have many wonderful memories of McGill – of my time on the McGill Daily, of professors like Hugh MacLennan and George Ian Duthie and the Honorary Doctorate awarded me in 2005.” The Order of Canada was bestowed in 2009.

Along with what is now a $100,000 first-prize purse (with $10,000 to each of the shortlisted authors), the Scotiabank Giller Prize has given Canadian authors the exposure needed to sell books – something Rabinovitch was eager to promote. “For the price of a dinner in this town you can buy all the nominated books,” Rabinovitch often told the audience of the black-tie Giller Gala. “So eat at home and buy the books.”​