As It Happens

John McCain's Yukon trip led him to Sam McGee's cabin

John McCain's former foreign policy advisor reflects on the politician's life — and remembers a trip years ago to the Yukon when the Arizona Senator disappeared to go see Sam McGee's cabin.

'Before I knew it, he had disappeared,' said Richard Fontaine

John McCain (left) had a special connection to The Cremation of Sam McGee, a poem by British-Canadian poet Robert Service. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters and Kids Can Press)
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Richard Fontaine has many memories of working and travelling with Senator John McCain. But one of the highlights includes a trip to northern Canada, where McCain disappeared to see Sam McGee's cabin. 

McCain, who died Saturday following a battle with brain cancer, had a special connection to poet Robert Service's work, The Cremation of Sam McGee. He had memorized it during his years as a prisoner in Vietnam, after a fellow prisoner recited it to him through a tapping code over the walls. 

Fontaine, who was McCain's foreign policy advisor between 2004 and 2009, worked on McCain's presidential campaign in 2008 and travelled with the Arizona senator on many trips, including Yukon many years ago. It was there he learned about McCain's appreciation for The Cremation of Sam McGee. 

Fontaine spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the trip and his memories of the late senator.

Senator John McCain returned to the Senate to vote on health care legislation in 2017, despite having recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

In your piece in The Atlantic, you shared one particular memory that may resonate with Canadians, and that's about a trip to the Yukon. Can you tell us that story?

We wanted to visit northern areas because of his interest in climate change and the disproportionate effects it is having as you get closer to the poles. Over time we went to Greenland, Norway, Alaska and Antarctica. So, we got in contact with the government of Canada and planned a trip to Yukon. 

We landed in Whitehorse. No one on the delegation had ever been there before. Someone there ... almost immediately upon landing was talking about Whitehorse and mentioned a local poet had lived there, Robert Service.

Senator McCain's eyes lit up and he said, "Oh, The Cremation of Sam McGee." And of course, none of us had any idea of what he was talking about. 

He relayed the story that when he was in prison in Vietnam, he spent two years in solitary confinement. The guy who was in the cell next to him, they shared a wall. The prisoners had developed a tap code. They couldn't talk obviously, so they would tap across the wall and they would convey messages that way.

This file picture taken in 1967 shows John McCain lying on a bed in a Hanoi after his Navy warplane was downed by the Northern Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. (AFP/Getty Images)

This individual on the other side, this [prisoner of war], had been required to learn poetry and memorize it in school. One of the poems he was required to memorize was The Cremation of Sam McGee. Among the poems that he taught McCain — and they had lots and lots of time on their hands — was that poem. McCain not only remembered it verbally, but also this tap code and he started to knock the poem out to show that he still remembered it.

Before I knew it, he had disappeared. 

What turned out was that there was a friendly local he had overheard and said, "[Robert Service's] house is right up the way here." McCain said, "I'd love see that." And [the local] said, "Well I've got a car. I'll take you there." And McCain jumped in the car and off they went.

They came back an hour or two later. I don't know what the house looked like but McCain's eyes were shining and he was talking on and on about this great Canadian poet.

Did he talk much about his time as a prisoner of war? 

He did from time to time. He talked about it in a pretty matter of fact way.

It manifested itself in terms of the way he saw war and the human cost of war, but also in ways you might not expect. Senator McCain, because of injuries he sustained in Vietnam, couldn't lift his arms over his head so it was very difficult for him to brush his hair and things like that. 

One would become pretty sensitive to this when we would be travelling. 

It's a special  bond when you comb another man's hair. Senator McCain is the only person I've provided that service to. But those were the kinds of things that came out from his experience there. 

John McCain was a frequent guest on As It Happens. In May of 1989, then-host Michael Enright asked him why he had taken up the cause of Canadians who fought in Vietnam. 0:52

You worked with him in 2008 during his second run of the presidency, the one where he won the nomination with his running mate Sarah Palin. What did he think and talk about when it came to that run for the White House, and what ultimately happened?

The run for the White House at the time seemed like the culmination of his life and career.

To get the nomination and then to fall short, I think was going to be a disappointment to anyone. But for me, one of the moving aspects was actually the consolation speech he gave in Phoenix, Arizona when he referred to Senator Obama and said, "He was my former opponent and now will be my president."

Here in 2018, it almost seems quaint that he wasn't calling for his opponent to be thrown in jail or investigated. He was saying, "No, no, no. We fought, we both tried to win this election. This is a democratic process. He won and now he's my president."

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama take part in their first 2008 U.S. presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

We're even seeing some of his ideological opponents, some Democrats, this weekend sharing memories and honouring Senator McCain's memory. He seemed to bring people to him even if they had a different worldview. Why was that?  

He was a deal maker and he realized that legislative deals have to be based on trust. And trust in turn is based on relationships.

When I first started working for him, he and Ted Kennedy would go down at the floor and nine issues out of 10, they would be yelling at each other across the floor. They just didn't agree on a lot of these issues.

But then, they would find a 10th issue that they did agree on whether it was immigration reform or democracy assistance in Iraq. And, they'd would work together as colleagues that were passionate and thought that these issues were more important than the politics of the day.

He forged those kinds of relationships on the Republican side of the aisle and the Democratic side of the aisle and looked for ways to bring people together around issues that were important.

Written by Samantha Lui. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


After this interview aired, we received a statement from Yukon MP Larry Bagnell — who says he's the "friendly local" that gave John McCain a ride. He clarified that the home they went to see was Sam McGee's cabin, not Robert Service's home: 

"I wish to extend my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Senator John McCain. Americans have lost a hero and dedicated statesman.

"I had the honour of meeting him a number of years ago when he came North on a Congressional Delegation trip to the Yukon to see the first-hand effects of climate change. When we were talking I learned that we shared a love of poet Robert Service.

"While in solitary confinement during the Vietnam War Senator McCain had memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee from a fellow prisoner. They had shared a common cell wall and he had been taught it through tap code along with a number of other poems. When I told him that Sam McGee's house, as well as my mammoth ivory carving of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, were on display at MacBride Museum, he hopped in my old car and we drove down to the museum."