Charles Foran has won the inaugural Hilary Weston Prize for non-fiction for his biography of Montreal writer Mordecai Richler.

Foran was named winner of the $60,000 prize, Canada's richest for non-fiction, at a ceremony Tuesday in Toronto.

His Mordecai: The Life & Times has been a favourite with book juries, winning the Charles Taylor Prize earlier this year and nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award later this month.

A Hilary Weston Prize jury of Brian Brett, Devyani Saltzman and Russell Wangersky hailed Foran for delivering "an authentic portrait of a writer who could be both tragic and gut-bustingly funny in the same sentence."

"Charles Foran's biography Mordecai is an epic work of scholarship and energy, capturing the career and life of the Montreal writer Mordecai Richler with a majesty that doesn't betray the wit and sincerity of Canada's most famous literary contrarian," the jury said in its citation.

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It took four years to research Mordecai: The Life & Times. (Knopf Canada)

Foran, a former columnist for the Montreal Gazette now living in Peterborough, Ont., is the first winner of the newly restructured award, formerly the Writers' Trust Prize for Non-fiction. Former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston took over sponsorship of the prize earlier this year, saying she wanted to shine a brighter spotlight on non-fiction writing.

"My portrait of Mordecai Richler is fair but sympathetic," Foran told CBC News at the awards ceremony.

"I don't at any point dismiss or wash over his flaws or the complexities of his character. If only because those complexities are really interesting. He was a man who did not mind, if you will, larger than life."

Foran says he admired Richler's public persona.

"He was all about energy, he was all about defiance. He was all about being candid, being honest. He said, ' I'm an honest witness to my age.' He was a big-time writer and a big time person so you can't beat that," Foran said.

Foran also reflected on the late writer's relationship with his home town and home province.

"Certainly his public engagements with Quebec nationalism, in particular the sign laws. took a toll on his reputation in Quebec and there's a sadness to that because really Quebec, and Montreal is what mattered more to him than any place else," Foran said.

"He found Canada less interesting west of Montreal and less interesting east of Montreal. He was a died-in-the-wool Montrealer."

The four other finalists for this year's prize each will receive $5,000:

  • 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).

Before the winner was announced, guests, including Richler's son Noah Richler, read from the nominated works.

A series of teaching resources have been created to introduce high school students to the work of the five nominees for the award.