Burlington | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Burlington, Ontario, population 186,948 (2021 census), 183,314 (2016 census), is located at the head of Lake Ontario. It borders Hamilton, Milton and Oakville. Burlington was first incorporated in 1873 as a village, as a town in 1915, and as a city in 1974. Amalgamation created the modern boundaries in 1958, combining the Town of Burlington, Nelson Township, and part of East Flamborough Township. Throughout history, the Burlington area has been home to different Indigenous groups, namely the Neutral, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg, including the Mississauga. The land is covered by treaties 3, 8, 14 and 19 (see Upper Canada Land Surrenders).

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples have lived in the Burlington area for thousands of years. The Neutral lived along the western end of Lake Ontario until the Iroquois Wars of the middle and late 17th century. During these wars, fought in part over control of the fur trade, the Haudenosaunee depopulated and dispersed the Neutral. In the early 1700s, the Anishinaabeg, including the Mississauga, began migrating to southwestern Ontario. In particular, they settled along the shores of Lake Ontario. Today, Indigenous peoples make up about 2 percent of Burlington’s population.


Burlington’s land is divided between four treaties. What is now Aldershot, a community in Burlington’s southwest corner, was included in the Between the Lakes Treaty No. 3 (1792). The Upper Canada government of John Graves Simcoe made this treaty with the Mississauga. They did so in order to settle Loyalists from the American Revolutionary War, including members of the Six Nations. Part of the treaty land surveyed became Geneva Township (later renamed East Flamborough Township).

The next portion of what is now Burlington purchased from the Mississauga was the Brant Tract, known as Treaty 8 (1797). The Upper Canada government granted the land to Six Nations leader Joseph Brant, or Thayendanegea, in recognition for his service to the British during the American Revolutionary War. The tract consisted of 3,450 acres (almost 1,400 hectares) near Burlington Bay.

Most of Burlington is within the Head of the Lake Treaty, No. 14 (1806). This treaty includes most of central and east Burlington. Part of this treaty area was named Nelson Township, and was surveyed for settlement in 1806. Burlington’s northern section is within the Ajetance Treaty, No. 19 (1818). (See also Upper Canada Land Surrenders.)

Settlement and Development

In the early 1800s, Port Nelson and Wellington Square were established on Lake Ontario, as ports for shipping grain to market in cities like Montreal and Chicago. Both were built on land purchased from Joseph Brant’s estate, near present day Brant Street. Port Nelson was at the base of Guelph Line, and is now the location of a park by the same name. The two communities were incorporated in 1873 as a single village, named Burlington. The name comes from the nearby Burlington Bay, named by John Graves Simcoe in 1792 for Bridlington, England (which was called Burlington until the 19th century).

Burlington Bay

England’s demand for wood led to an active timber industry. Imports from countries around the Baltic Sea had been cut off by the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). By 1846, there were 17 sawmills in Nelson Township. Some of these sawmills evolved into the communities of Zimmerman, Lowville and Kilbride, all present-day neighbourhoods in Burlington.

Adding to the demand for timber, in the 1880s steamboats replaced schooners as a primary means of transporting goods on Lake Ontario. The boats used wood as fuel and, in the late 1840s, Alex Brown built a wharf to supply them. Known as Brown’s Wharf, it was located in East Flamborough Township and today is the site of LaSalle Park. The wharf led to the creation of the community of Aldershot.

By the late 1870s, many farmers in the Burlington area focused on fruit and vegetable crops. Their output was exhibited at world’s fairs. The Gallagher farm developed an acclaimed cantaloupe variety, known as “sugar-salmon.” Juice and ketchup made by the Burlington Canning Company (later known as Dominion Canners and today as Aylmer) was sold internationally.

After the Second World War, the population of Burlington, Nelson Township and the Aldershot area of East Flamborough Township grew rapidly. In 1957, the Ontario Municipal Board approved the Town of Burlington to annex Nelson and part of East Flamborough. The town’s modern borders began 1 January 1958.


Burlington is the 28th largest city in Canada, and 13th largest in Ontario. According to the 2021 census, prominent ethnic groups in the city include English (23.8 per cent of the population), Scottish (18.9 per cent), Irish (18 per cent), Canadian (12.4 per cent), German (8.9 per cent) and Italian (8.5 per cent).

Fruit Farming

Economy and Labour Force

Burlington has continued to develop in recent decades, thanks in part to its location on Lake Ontario, and proximity to Hamilton and Toronto. The Queen Elizabeth Way (1939) and Burlington Skyway bridge (1958, 1985) are familiar sights for commuters. (See also Iconic Highways in Canada.)

Industries employing significant numbers of Burlington residents include retail trade, health care and social assistance, and professional services. Over 600 people work at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (1967), located near the Skyway. The facility includes the National Water Research Institute.

From 1952 to 1977, Munro Games was located in Burlington. The company invented table hockey in 1932 in Toronto. Current businesses include a Sofina Foods pork processing plant, and cookie maker Voortman Bakery.

Government and Politics

Burlington has a mayor and six councillors. All also serve at Halton Regional Council.

The city handles services including libraries, parks and recreation, transit, and most local streets. The regional government handles services including social services, public health, and water. Halton also includes Milton, Halton Hills and Oakville.

Halton previously was a County. In 1949, Burlington’s Mary Pettit became the first female warden (i.e. head of a county council) elected in Ontario.

Burlington, Ontario

Cultural Life

Royal Botanical Gardens’ main section, featuring over 1,500 plant types, is within Burlington. The Art Gallery of Burlington features the largest collection of contemporary Canadian ceramics. In 1942, a replica of Joseph Brant’s house was built to create the Joseph Brant Museum. The Burlington Sports Hall of Fame is located in a historic train station.

Musical acts Walk off the Earth, Finger Eleven, Spoons, and Sarah Harmer are from the city. The Burlington Teen Tour Band (est. 1947) is a marching band that represents the city at events around the world.

As of 2021, 25 Order of Canada recipients were listed as from Burlington. They include Dr. Frank Hayden, who helped create the Special Olympics. Other notables from the city include canoeists Mark and Scott Oldershaw, and artist Robert Bateman.

Further Reading

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