Rick Steele photographed in 2013 during the Yukon Research Centre’s project he coordinated to digitize 50 years of historical weather data from the White Pass and Yukon Route company log books. Steele died Sept. 10 after a brief bout with colon cancer. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)

Yukon internet pioneer Rick Steele dead at 64

Steele, who was instrumental in bringing internet to the Yukon, died Sept. 10

He’s perhaps best known for being a digital-age pioneer in the North, a self-described technology junkie who was instrumental in the mid-’90s push to bring internet to the Yukon and who never stopped advocating for keeping Yukoners connected.

But for friends and family, that was only a small piece of the man who was Rick Steele — he was also someone with a voracious appetite for reading and travelling, who could make you laugh until it hurt, and, despite having made a name for himself in tech, whose first love had always been English literature.

Steele died in Whitehorse Sept. 10 following a brief bout with an aggressive colon cancer that was diagnosed in mid-July. He was 64.

Born in Whitehorse on July 10, 1954, Steele fell in love with writing at an early age, churning out stories and poems as a student at the now-defunct Lambert Street primary school. He would eventually go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and also began but never completed a master’s degree in the same field.

While pursuing his master’s, he also worked as a teaching assistant, something childhood friend Chris Almstrom, who met Steele in Grade 1 and who also studied in Vancouver, said he excelled at.

“I think (students) sensed that he was for real. He wasn’t some kind of suit, you know?” Almstrom said. “He had standards, he knew what was right and what wasn’t right, but I think his love and understanding of (literature) rubbed off on people… I know this because people used to, like in Vancouver, we’d be out somewhere and his students that he was TAing would accost us and send us beer and stuff like that. That isn’t that common for a teaching assistant.”

Steele eventually returned to Whitehorse where, in the early ‘90s, he fell into the technology world “by accident,” said friend and fellow English-student-turned-early-internet-and-email adopter, Richard Lawrence.

“He started an editing business, so offered to edit people’s work and to do a bit of desktop publishing as well for them and he bought a computer and started working on that but just couldn’t make a go of it,” Lawrence recalled. “But he became quite proficient at the technical side of things, so even though people weren’t paying him anything for his editing, they were asking for his advice on, you know, ‘How do you do that with a computer?’”

Around the same time, Lawrence continued, the internet was just starting to be discussed in the Yukon, and together, he and Steele set up a rudimentary email system that would shuttle messages back and forth twice a day via long-distance phone calls to the University of Alberta’s Edmonton campus.

It was that brush with the early days of email that ultimately steered Steele towards the sector that he would make a career out of; he would soon go on to manage the YukonNet Operating Society, which advocated for and created the territory’s first public internet service in January 1995. Two years later, and after working as an employee, Steele became the manager of YKnet, one of the Yukon’s first, and at one point, largest, internet service provider, and pushed to have internet brought to not just Whitehorse, but the communities as well.

“I think he probably had a sense of community service,” said Chris Lane, founder of Make IT and co-founder of Tech Yukon, of which Steele served as executive director for from 2014 to November 2017. “I think he thought that internet was a right and I suspect that was a big part of his motivation, and he wanted to be part of something new and could change things… He wasn’t motivated that much by monetary gain.”

In 2004, Steele was hired by Yukon College as its technology innovation officer within the Yukon Research Centre, a position he would fill for just over a decade and where he focused on, among other things, helping startups and students fine-tune their ideas and get funding.

But even as technology became his career, Steele’s love for reading and writing never died down, his wife, Aline Goncalves, said. The couple married in 2007.

“When he was at home, his favourite thing to do was to read. He read a lot… I have a house full of books here, probably about 5,000 of them. It’s like living in a library,” she said, adding that he would read everything from poetry to literature to books on military and political history.

He also wrote extensively. Before his death, had been planning to write a book on the history of the internet in the Yukon. (He only started very basic work on it; Goncalves and some of Steele’s friends are currently collecting other pieces that he wrote over the years.)

Steele also passionate about soccer — in particular, Liverpool F.C. and Grimsby Town F.C. — and would wake up at 4 a.m. most Saturdays to catch the English Premier League on TV.

But what Goncalves said she’ll remember most about Steele is his sense of humour, and, while he was largely a private person, he also had the ability to talk to anyone about almost anything.

“He had a very unique sense of humour, I think everybody who knew him would certainly describe that about him … and people would be just drawn to him because of that. And also because he was a really smart guy and also really caring in his own way, and he really wanted to help his community,” Goncalves said. “He really didn’t ask a lot in return, so I think he was a true Yukoner.”

Lawrence agreed.

“(What I miss the most about him is) just the knowledge that if you’re feeling kind of alone and you wanted somebody to chat with that would make the world seem that much more interesting and more funny, you could call up Rick and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go for a beer or a coffee? You want to have lunch?’ And it always seemed a little better after that meeting,” he said.

“He was genuinely interested in so many things and yeah, tech helped pay the bills but it wasn’t entirely who he was. He was so much more than that.”

Steele is survived by his wife and their two cockatiels Elvis and Costella, as well as his brother, Gordon, sister, Mary, and a number of nephews, nieces and great-nephews and nieces.

Steele had requested that no formal celebration of life be held for him, and that any gatherings or remembrances be informal; Goncalves said his family is respecting that wish.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com