If Canada was as good at mythologizing its history as our neighbours to the south, the story of Marguerite de la Rocque de Roberval would be as famous as any historical potboiler.
In 1542, the headstrong young Frenchwoman, the niece of a nobleman who was a senior official during Jacques Cartier’s early efforts to settle Quebec, enraged her guardian with her "immoral" behaviour. She was deliberately marooned on the Isle of Demons off the coast of Labrador and left to die.
At the very least, such a tale could combine the intense moral drama of The Scarlet Letter with the survival thrills of The Revenant.
Toronto-based actress Severn Thompson herself adapted the Governor General’s Award-winning novel by Douglas Glover, in addition to playing Marguerite. She was entranced, she says in a phone interview from Vancouver, with a character who was "outside her time.
"She was somewhat rude and she had this impulsiveness. She had strong appetites, including sexual appetites, which get her into trouble," Thompson says. "And like me, she resorts to humour when things get bad. That was one of her coping mechanisms and I just really appreciated that.
"She was shaped by the 16th-century aristocratic culture that she came from, but definitely lived on the fringes of it," Thompson says. "She was a misfit.
"She had no interest in being a wife or a nun and those were the two options really available to her," Thompson says. "In this account, she volunteered to go on this journey to see a new world. I don’t think she had plans to live there for the rest of her life. She wanted to have an adventure and see something she wasn’t familiar with.
"She had no idea what she was getting herself into."
Instead of being socially ostracized in the vein of The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, Marguerite was exiled, a punishment in which she would not be expected to survive.
"I still have a hard time believing she lived through it," Thompson says. "In our story, she survives one winter, but in fact she survived two winters in extremely difficult conditions and nothing to help her out."
More shocking, at least for Thompson, was that "I didn’t know this story" before she read Glover’s novel.
"What the novel did for me was to bring out the whole history of Canada into a different perspective, looking at one of the earliest encounters that had been all but forgotten for centuries, really."
Thompson’s play debuted a little over a year ago at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, and arrives in Winnipeg in a year in which the country celebrates its 150th anniversary.
"It’s a good time to tell this story anytime, but for the sesquicentennial, I think it’s a great opportunity for people to look back at what colonialism has been and continues to be in our lives," she says.
"I’m sure there are so many accounts that would help us all, as Canadians, to understand our place and our own history so much better."