Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

“Serving to preserve, honour, and promote the culture & history of all working people”.

Story by the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre.

The Workers Arts and Heritage (WAHC) was conceived in the late 1980s 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.

WAHC’s mission is to preserve, honour and promote the culture and history of all working people. But WAHC also hopes 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.

A poster for the Grand Opening of the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre featuring WAHC's first exhibition "What We Fought For", 1996.
Artist playing guitar in a pick-up truck parked in front of WAHC as part of the 1997 Labour Day parade programming. WAHC provided artistic and cultural programming to entertain the marchers before they began their procession. The music performed was likely labour songs. Every year, the Hamilton and District Labour Council organizes a Labour Day parade; union members and their families usually line up in front of WAHC along Stuart Street between James and Bay before the march.

Robert Blakely, President of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, captured the importance of arts and cultural spaces that share the often untold stories of working class people and their unions: “Your children and mine learn something of the history of our country in school; they learn that bold entrepreneurs like Eaton, Irving, McCain, Macmillan, and Bloedel made this nation. They learn absolutely nothing about the men and women of our unions and the people who actually built the buildings and the infrastructure that gives us the security and the comfort that we enjoy today. Our history, the history of Canadian labour is being lost, that is something that we ought not to allow. Similarly, we ought not to allow others to write that history. There is one place in Canada where the history of our movement and our members is kept and that is the Workers Arts and Heritage Museum in Hamilton.”

Left: artwork from WAHC’s International Women’s Day exhibition, “Women Measuring The Health Of Our Community: Is It Working For Us?” In Taos, New Mexico, there is a tradition amongst women artists to present their creations en mass every two years in the spring. In Hamilton, the tradition began in 1992 at the Tivoli Theatre on James Street North, with a show known as “Bountiful Woman”. Two more “Bountiful Woman” shows appeared consecutively in 1994 and 1996. In response to the original organizers time being taken up by personal affairs, the Women’s Bookstop and WAHC teamed up to present a women centred exhibit, opening on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 1998.

Right: Opening reception for WAHC’s Main Gallery exhibition, “Booze: Work, Pleasure and Controversy”, curated by Craig Heron and designed by Carole Conde and Karle Beveridge, 1998. Image captures banners advocating for temperance.

Grand Opening of Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, photo of the original Board of Directors, November 1996.

Some select milestones of WAHC’s presence in the Hamilton arts community from 1950 to 1999 include:

1991: Incorporated as Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

1995: Purchased the Custom House, a designated national heritage site and raised $2 million for renovations and restoration

1996: Open to the public

1999: Ontario Society of Architects Recognition Award and Hamilton Sustainable Community Recognition Award

Below: Photos from WAHC’s Main Gallery exhibition, “Some Women of Porcupine Camp: An Illustrated Spoken History”, 1997. Photographs and interviews conducted by Mary-Theresa Lawlor. An excerpt of one of the stories from the exhibition: “Mary Tadej: We work hard. You English people, you never work hard. You never you never… you never slave like me. We were slave. You know what I mean slave. I scrubbed a lots. My store. And even before, in the old house, I scrubbing and scrubbing and washing, use the lye and all strong soap. My hands were wore out. Not only my, everybody who want to do the good job. You people too soft. You don’t how you save your hands. You can’t keep the clean if you save the hands.”

WAHC’s arts programming did not begin until 2007 with three contemporary exhibits in the Main Gallery becoming a permanent feature of the organization in 2009. At the outset, WAHC exclusively mounted historical exhibitions focused on the labour movement that explored the lives of working people locally and provincially.

As a community museum and arts centre, WAHC currently offers both permanent exhibits on labour history in Hamilton and Ontario, and contemporary exhibits and multi-disciplinary event-based programming for all ages that offer a contemporary perspective on labour history and issues regarding work in society today. However, this was not always the case.

Founded in 1860, 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. In 2001, the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre was re-named the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, reflecting its widening scope and mandate. 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.

WAHC Celebrating Latin American Women’s Day in 1997. Even before WAHC starting exhibiting contemporary art in their Main Gallery, they celebrated key calendar dates with arts programming, a tradition that has continued to this day.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Official Website