Beginning in the 1960s, and over a span of approximately twenty years, various groups of women in Yellowknife spoke longingly of the need to establish a drop-in centre where local women could gather, seek support, share ideas, have fun and work together on projects of mutual interest. In 1988, a decision to actively pursue the establishment of a place where women could meet, share information, network and carry out projects of mutual interest was sparked by International Women's Day celebrations.
A core group of approximately thirty women met on an informal basis over a period of 18 months to develop the framework for the women's society. The group was very diverse in culture, lifestyle and opinion and individual members often held directly opposing points of view on specific issues. Settling the question of whether or not the women's society could, or should, attempt to represent all women became the focal point of discussion in subsequent months. Intense debate centred on the feasibility or even desirability of one woman's group to attempt establishing itself as a resource and support for all women.
At the end of almost two years it was decided by a majority vote of one that the new society would adopt a constitution and set of bylaws that would be inclusive of all women. The Yellowknife Women's Society was formally incorporated as a non-profit society in January of 1990. Founding members decided the Yellowknife Women's Society would operate by consensus using a decision-making model designed to allow all women to co-exist equally in one group. The goal of the society was to support and assist women in empowering themselves so they could develop their goals, achieve wellness, enjoy equality and be recognized for the contribution they make to the community.
Its operating principles were based on a positive agenda that fairly recognized the worth and validity of both majority and minority views held by women.
A drop-in centre, called the Yellowknife Women’s Centre, was immediately set up with the support of a local business owner who paid the first three months’ rent on a facility. In its first four years of its existence, the Yellowknife Women's Society rented a small downtown house and operated without core funding, without paid staff and only a small amount of project funding. The Yellowknife Women's Society's work was accomplished largely through the tireless efforts of dedicated, long-term volunteers and donations from the business community.
In 1995, the territorial government provided the Yellowknife Women's Society with its first contribution of core-funding totalling $30,000. The same year, the federal government provided project funding to the Yellowknife Women's Centre to provide supports to children and their families and a prenatal nutrition program. Government funding and continued support from the corporate sector made it possible for the Yellowknife Women's Society to hire one person to co-ordinate its activities for the year. As a result, the Yellowknife Women's Centre was in a far more secure and stable position to offer broader and consistent support to the women and families it served.
The range of programs and services offered by the Yellowknife Women's Centre to women and their families grew to such an extent that it was forced to relocate twice in 1997. In response to a growing need for emergency shelter, the Yellowknife Women's Centre moved again to a larger facility on the main street where it could offer residential services. This building was named the Centre for Northern Families, in acknowledgment that women are connected to their families, and cannot achieve wellness unless their families are supported to do the same.