For nearly 20 years, a Winnipeg charity has been selling homemade spring rolls to raise money for poor kids in Vietnam.
Earlier this year, the Manitoba Health Department ordered Tam Nguyen to stop, saying he didn't have a proper licence to prepare spring rolls for sale.
"They were too good," reasoned Nguyen, the co-founder of Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam. He is one of the Vietnamese "boat people" -- refugees who fled Vietnam by ship after the Vietnam War, especially during 1978 and 1979.
Nguyen vowed to help those left behind if he survived the ordeal at sea. When the tailor settled in Winnipeg, he helped launch the charity in 1995. The spring roll sales started in 1997, he said.
'It's about prevention to minimize the risk of people getting sick'
Tens of thousands of the popular appetizers have been sold through churches, schools and to individual supporters and there has never been a complaint. Nguyen isn't bitter. He figures someone in the commercial spring-roll market complained about the charity's low-cost product undercutting them.
"It's about prevention to minimize the risk of people getting sick," said Peter Parys, director of environmental health with Manitoba Health.
Inspectors don't want to shut anyone down, but make sure they're handling food safely, Parys said.
That would include making sure the food is prepared at a commercially licensed and inspected facility by a certified food handler.
"We want to work with them and direct them to do it safely and properly," said Parys.
Nguyen said he doesn't have a permit or certificate, and isn't about to get one. The province asked him to sign a letter saying he understands the rules and promises not to make and sell any more spring rolls for charity, which he did.
"We don't want any trouble with the law," Nguyen said.
The order to cease and desist making spring rolls for public consumption harkens back to the Bannock Lady, Althea Guiboche. Last year, the province ordered the Winnipeg mom to stop serving free homemade soup and bannock to the homeless without the required permits.
Guiboche fixed the situation by getting the proper papers and is now making her bannock at Ralph Brown Community Centre.
At Nguyen's tailor shop on Ellice Avenue Tuesday, the front was lined with autographed photos of celebrities he's outfitted -- such as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman -- and newspaper clippings about the charity in Vietnam.
In the back of the shop, he coached a recent Congolese newcomer on tailoring and succeeding in Canada.
"If I can do it, you can do it," Nguyen told the man who arrived in Canada with some tailoring experience, limited English and a large family. Nguyen hired the man's oldest daughter to work at a nail salon he started in Garden City, which employs close to a dozen newcomers.
"There are no factory jobs anymore," said the single father of two grown children. "They work hard. They need jobs," said Nguyen, who met the Congolese family through a fellow tailor.
He asked Nguyen to pick them up when they arrived at the airport on one of the coldest days of the worst winter in recent memory.
A month later, Nguyen was in Vietnam for the lunar new year to visit relatives and an orphanage that underwent a major renovation funded by Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam.
The Phu Hoa Orphanage in Quang Ngai is home to 20 children and run by four Catholic nuns. Last year, a tropical storm resulted in flood damage to the building. The renovations paid for by the Winnipeg charity will improve living and working conditions at Phu Hoa.
For fun, Nguyen organized a field trip for the children. He saw a news story about the kids, who aren't eligible to attend local schools and are being taught by a couple of retired teachers volunteering in their home. Nguyen asked them how he could help and they suggested a field trip to Ho Chi Minh City, just 30 kilometres away, but out of reach for the kids from poor families. He chartered a bus for the 58 kids and their teachers and they spent the day in the former Saigon, including a visit to the zoo.
"This one I do out of my own funds. I feel these kids are missing something."