The Workers Arts and Heritage was conceived in the late 1980’s by a dynamic group of labour historians, artists, and union and community activists who gathered together to discuss the need for a place where workers’ history could be celebrated. In 1996, after intense work by a volunteer board of directors, the (Ontario) Workers Arts and Heritage Centre purchased the historic Custom House on Stuart Street in the north end of Hamilton. The building is ideally situated in the heart of a working-class neighbourhood.
The Workers Arts and Heritage Centre aims to preserve, honour and promote the culture and history of all working people. But we also hope to learn from the past towards challenging the future – for future generations. The contributions of working people – not only in Canadian history but worldwide – are showcased in art, exhibits, and performances. Their labour and advocacy has made this country a fair and vibrant place to live and work, and we acknowledge these struggles. Without them, Canadians would not be living in a country ranked among the best in the world.
The Custom House, built in 1860 to handle trade flowing through Hamilton Harbour and fanning out into Upper Canada, found itself in a period of transition after the Customs Department left in 1887. Over the years many different companies have used it. The Custom House stood deserted until WAHC was able to purchase it. Over a $1.5 million went into the restoration of this majestic historic building. We couldn’t think of a more appropriate edifice to provide the backdrop for the pursuit of our ideals in a number of ways: through research and development, educational programs, assisting with the documentation of histories, and by staging cultural events. WAHC is much more than a museum – it’s that, but it’s also a contemporary multi-disciplinary arts centre. Ours are collaborative ventures.