The second volume of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald and Charles Foran’s examination of author Mordecai Richler will vie for Canada’s richest non-fiction award later this year.

Five finalists were revealed Tuesday for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, which has a top prize of $60,000. The new award, sponsored by former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston, replaces the Writers' Trust Non-fiction Prize, which was without a sponsor since 2008.

"My hope is that this prize will help raise the profile of these fine authors who are about to be announced today. I also want to reward authors for the time they spend in painstaking research," Weston said at a news conference to announce the contenders.

She said she chose to back a non-fiction prize because she believes the genre does not get the high-profile attention that literary prizes such as the Giller Prize have brought to Canadian fiction.

"I have often wondered about that word non-fiction. There is a kind of negative connotation, I thought, as if a work was less valuable because it was not fiction," she said.

The finalists are:

  • Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada).
  • Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation).
  • Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times; Volume Two: 1867-1891 (Random House Canada).
  • Grant Lawrence, Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nudist Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound (Harbour Publishing).
  • Ray Robertson, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live (Biblioasis).

Each of the five finalists will receive $5,000.

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Richard Gwyn's Nation Maker follows Sir John A. Macdonald's life after 1867. (CBC)

Gwyn, a Toronto journalist and political analyst, won the Charles Taylor Prize in 2008 for his first volume about Canada’s first prime minister, John A: The Man Who Made Us. The second volume, Nation Maker, looks at Macdonald’s life and times after Confederation.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gwyn said Macdonald has been dismissed as a corrupt, minor politician and a man only interested in power. Those criticisms may be true, but he is still the "most interesting, multilayered, complex and contradictory" man who has been a Canadian prime minister, Gwyn said.

"Breathing life into John A Macdonald is no problem. He was himself full of life – he was a life force. Nothing ever discouraged him," he added.

Foran, a Peterborough, Ont.-based novelist and journalist, won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction earlier this year for his engaging biography of provocative writer Mordecai Richler.

Foran recalled being impressed by Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz when he read it as a Toronto high school student in 1977.

"Here was this rough-edged, intentionally abrasive story about a young Montreal hustler and it went right into my imagination," he said.

CBC Radio's Grant Lawrence

Lawrence is a CBC Radio 3 personality whose Adventures in Solitude is a memoir of time spent at his family cabin in Desolation Sound on the wild west coast of B.C.

He said the place he hated when his father took him there as a child began to fascinate him later in life.

"It really freaked me out as a child, all those drunk loggers and naked hippies," he said. "As an adult I came to the realization that all the people I was so afraid of when I was a little kid because they were so different from me, all have fascinating stories about how they got beyond the end of the road and ended up in that lonely place."

Eating Dirt is also a memoir, following Vancouver writer Gill’s years planting trees everywhere from northern Ontario to the Haida Gwaii.

Robertson, a Toronto novelist and essayist, examines what makes life worth living in his thoughtful new book Why Not?

The winner of the prize will be announced Oct. 25 in Toronto.

By then, Weston aims to have created an educational program around the nominated books that includes providing copies of the books to high schools, along with a teaching guide that helps students engage with the stories.