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

The creator of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which boosted the profiles and sales of countless Canadian fiction authors, has died.
Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the literary Giller Prize, smiles after being awarded the rank of Officer in the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall in Ottawa September 3, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Jack Rabinovitch, the beloved businessman who created the Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award that boosted the profiles and sales of countless Canadian fiction authors, has died.

Rabinovitch died Sunday afternoon in Toronto, his daughter Elana confirmed. He was 87.

An obituary posted on the website of Benjamin's Park Memorial Chapel, which was handling the funeral arrangements, said Rabinovitch died as a result of a "catastrophic fall" at his home last week.

The Montreal-born, Toronto-based Rabinovitch tackled several careers throughout his life, including journalism, food retail and real estate. But it was the Giller Prize that made him a recognizable face across Canada and around the world.

The idea for the award was hatched over bar drinks with author Mordecai Richler.

"It started at a pub in Montreal called Woody's and ended up at a famous restaurant in Montreal called Moishes, and over chopped liver we decided what to do," Rabinovitch told the Canadian Press in October 2012.

The prize was established in 1994, a year after the death of Rabinovitch's wife, literary journalist Doris Giller. Rabinovitch wanted to create an award to honour Giller while also recognizing excellence in Canadian fiction.

"The only real major (literary) prize (back then) was the Governor General's and most people just felt that it wasn't right to just let the government handle the situation," said Rabinovitch, who was named Maclean's magazine "Man of the Year" in 1999.

"So private people like myself and various other people have started new prizes to highlight and admire new writers."

The Giller Prize initially endowed a cash prize of $25,000, which was the largest purse for literature in the country.

In 2005, the award teamed up with Scotiabank and the prize grew to what is now $40,000 for the winner and $5,000 for each of the finalists. In 2014, the prize increased to $100,000 for the winner and $10,000 for the remaining finalists.

Winners of the Giller Prize include Rohinton Mistry for A Fine Balance, Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace, Mordecai Richler for Barney's Version, Alice Munro for Runaway, André Alexis for Fifteen Dogs and Madeleine Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

"We learned a long time ago that authors are really interested in selling their books, that's how they make a living, so that's what we're trying to do — is help them make a living," said Rabinovitch, whose signature line at every Giller gala was: "For the price of a dinner in this town you can buy all the nominated books. So, eat at home and buy the books."​

— With files from CBC Books